Of War and Weakness: The Life of Hong Guoji (1570-1660)

From the moment he could walk, it was clear that Hong would become a warrior. Born in 1570 in the northern regions of Jurchen territory, Hong was the son of a village headman, Hong Zhenyu, a militarily active leader who seized any opportunity he could to expand his land holdings. The process of conquest in those days was simple. A village headman would first offer to be the lord of a neighboring village, an invitation that entailed a peaceful transition into a new leadership. If the target village accepted this offer, it would be required to pay tribute to the conquering headman, provide bribes to the headman’s male kin, and supply soldiers during times of war. If the village refused, however, then the headman would fight against it, and if he won, the residents of the defeated village would become bondservants of their new lord. Hong senior had a knack for winning, and the year-round military campaigns he held surely had an influence on his son, who would grow up to be similarly skilled in battle and seduced by the power-trip that came with victory. By the mid-1580s, Hong had become one of the most adept archers in his father’s army, which itself had grown to be the most powerful village in northern Manchuria.

Hong senior’s position of supremacy was short-lived, however. By the mid-1590s, a new leader had risen to challenge his authority[1]: Nurhaci, a charismatic fighter whose ardently delivered promise of military expansion and profit via plunder appealed to Jurchen soldiers everywhere. Hong senior’s troops began abandoning their former leader to mobilize around this new military titan, and before long, Hong himself enlisted in Nurhaci’s army against his father’s wishes—the older Hong, proud to be the most powerful village headman in the region, refused to acknowledge that he was being overshadowed by this up-and-coming military leader. However, in 1595, he was forced to surrender to Nurhaci’s army and reduced to the status of bondsman as punishment for his prior obstinacy. Though he felt sorry for his father’s humiliating demotion, any sense of remorse Hong experienced was overshadowed by his faith in the military potential of his new commander—even family ties could not curb his devotion as a soldier.

As a means of organizing his troops, Nurhaci created color-coded military units called “banners,” which were further subdivided into three groups named after the ethnicities of their constituent members: “Jurchen,” “Mongol,” and “Chinese-martial.” Being Jurchen-born, Hong was assigned to the “Jurchen” group of the “red” banner—in retrospect, the color red fit the man’s penchant for violence—except the name was misleading because Hong’s group contained non-Jurchen soldiers as well. In fact, this was the case for all the subgroups—across all banners, none of the “Mongol” groups comprised exclusively soldiers of Mongol-descent, and every “Chinese-martial” group had both Chinese and non-Chinese members. The reason for this mismatch between group name and group membership remains a mystery, though a likely explanation is bureaucratic error: faced with such a high influx of new soldiers, Nurhaci’s administrative officials could conceivably have made mistakes in assigning each new soldier to the correct group. All that said, the multiethnic makeup of the groups proved to have little effect on the camaraderie that developed between soldiers placed under the same descriptive label. Hong, who grew up thinking that the family and the village were the sole communal units, was unfamiliar with the prospect of developing bonds with Jurchens from other villages, let alone people from other countries. Under Nurhaci, however, he came to understand the capacity for community when multiple individuals joined together to fight for a single cause.

Around the time of Hong’s initiation into Nurhaci’s army, a Korean ambassador named Envoy Sin was making repeated contact with the burgeoning empire. Sin would leave for a week or so at a time and then return with gifts for Nurhaci; whenever he stayed over for the night, a tent was set up for him in the Jurchen barracks. Initially suspicious of this foreign presence within the Jurchen ranks, Hong one day approached the leader of his banner and inquired into Sin’s purpose, and received only a cryptic answer. According to the banner leader, Nurhaci wanted to ally with Korea in order to take over Ming China, and Sin was presumably there to negotiate on behalf of the Korean governor, but the exact logistics of the plan were known only to high-ranking officers. As such, the banner leader had no more to say than this, and sternly advised Hong to refrain from asking too many questions, as he was merely a soldier. From this point on, Hong became aware of the existence of geopolitical intrigue beyond the ground-level world he knew. Though he was far from satisfied with the answer he was given, he also expected that the truth would probably go over his head, and so he became the ideal soldier: unquestioning and adamantly loyal, trusting that the powers that be had his and his fellow soldiers’ best interests in mind.

Despite his skill as an archer—which did not go unnoticed by the head of the Jurchen subgroup, who made it his point to always have Hong nearby whenever their banner embarked on a military campaign—Hong spent two decades without facing any combat beyond mild skirmishes with villages who were still resistant to Nurhaci. Perhaps this lull in fighting caused Hong to be out of practice in thinking like a warrior and his nerves of steel to have atrophied in the decades between Hong’s first days as a foot soldier under Nurhaci and the autumn of 1617. By that time, Hong had more or less accepted that his days as a banner-man would be more idleness than warfare, but his thirst for adventure was not easily quenched. When the call for volunteers to transport ginseng to Korea was made—exporting the stimulant was a considerable source of income for the empire, which then used the money to buy weapons and the advice of military experts[2]—Hong was the first one onboard, and by the evening of the same day, he and a band of five other soldiers departed north toward the Jurchen-Korean border. The ride, though a few days’ journey by horse, was largely uneventful until the border was in sight, during which time a gang of Chinese bandits ambushed them. Caught unaware, the band was unable to properly defend themselves and fell beneath the enemy’s flashing swords. Within minutes, the battle was over, the ginseng was stolen, and all but one of Hong’s band-members lay dead. The only way he managed to get out alive was by leaping over a shallow cliff and rolling out of sight into a bush.

Thoroughly shaken by the experience, Hong emerged from his hiding place to see that the one surviving member from his band belonged to the Chinese-martial group, whereas those who lay lifeless were Jurchen. An irrational rage overcame him in this moment—to him, it appeared that the bandits had spared this man’s life only because he was Chinese, and thus in Hong’s eyes, the survivor had become allied with the enemy by virtue of their shared ethnicity. Hong was quite ready to kill his band-member, and only the man’s desperately professed allegiance to Nurhaci stopped him from doing so. The two soldiers, whose horses had been stolen along with the ginseng, had to make the journey home on foot. A few miles from the Jurchen barracks, the Chinese man died from dehydration, and Hong himself barely made it past the outskirts of the camp before fainting. When he awoke, concerned members of his banner were peering down at him, and he became consumed anew with bloodlust. He screamed at the non-Jurchen soldiers to leave his tent immediately, and recounted the details of what happened only to his fellow Jurchen soldiers. One of those in attendance found Hong’s story to be remarkable and took copious notes, which have survived until today—they are the reason why we have such a detailed account of the bandit raid.

After the trauma of the attack, Hong began viewing any potential enemies, the most prominent of which were the Koreans and the Ming Chinese, with the utmost malice. Even within his own “Jurchen” group, he grew distrustful toward all those who were ethnically different than himself. Paranoia fueled his xenophobia along with a level of savagery neither he nor his fellow soldiers had ever experienced before. This newfound penchant for violence displayed itself most memorably in the 1619 battle between the Jurchens and the Ming[3], during which he single-handedly killed two of the Ming commanders and cleaved a path down the middle of the Ming line with just his horse, his knife, and the blood-splattered Jurchen banner which he took off the body of the dead banner-carrier. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he was a fearsome sight, and his reckless courage helped inspire his fellow soldiers to victory. News of Hong’s contributions to the battle reached Nurhaci’s ears, and the ruler promoted Hong to a general who oversaw multiple banners. Hong maintained this position through Nurhaci’s death in 1626[4] and into the reign of the fallen leader’s predecessor, Hong Taiji, who would be the one to rename the Manchurian empire the Qing Dynasty.

As a general, Hong Guoji became notorious for his severe treatment of soldiers and bondsmen alike. He forced everyone to work hard, but pushed the non-Jurchens to the brink of death. He meted out punishment for the smallest slights, as when he dismembered a Ming prisoner of war for accidentally spilling a cup of tea onto his lap. This aggressive cruelty only got worse as time went on, likely because there was little opportunity for Hong to use war as an outlet for his rage—after the 1619 victory against the Ming, there were very few battles that required the participation of such a high ranking general as Hong. In 1644, when it was announced that the Qing had devised a way to bypass the Great Wall and seize Beijing, Hong was practically jumping with joy, but he suffered an arrow injury within the first hour of the invasion and had to be carried back to the camp to recuperate. Starved for violence, Hong continued to take out his hate for foreigners on his fellow, non-Jurchen Qing soldiers. His peacetime ire reached its peak around the late 1640s when he received news that Zheng Zilong, a former benefactor of the Ming military, had defected to the Qing side and would be living in relative comfort among their ranks[5]. Hong, positive that Zheng was up to no good and would sabotage the Qing’s initiative to expand its borders, actually stormed into Hong Taiji’s tent and demanded that their new guest be ejected from their midst. This reckless maneuver of approaching the Qing ruler uninvited—and in so disagreeable a fashion—would have resulted in the demotion if not the execution of any other officer, but due to Hong Guoji’s high military value as a general, the ruler merely gave him a stern reprimand and calmly explained the benefits of using a prisoner of war of Zheng’s status as a bargaining chip (Hong Taiji did not yet know this at this point, but in the early 1660s, Zheng’s son Zheng Chenggong would have grown to become a major threat to the empire, and the empire would indeed try to use the father to coerce his son into submission. This attempt would fail, however, since the son had himself vowed to kill his father, and Zheng senior would eventually be executed on account of his uselessness[6]). Still thoroughly dissatisfied but somewhat mollified by the knowledge that a military agenda lay behind this otherwise unthinkable action with Zheng, Hong Guoji returned to his posting. His life would continue as such for another decade and a half until the battle at Xiamen in the summer of 1660[7]. It was in this battle that Hong died—at 90 years old, he was too weak to keep up with his fellow soldiers and fell fatally off his horse. Despite his savage life and ungraceful death, however, Hong was commemorated as a hero of the Qing.


[1] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 389.
[2] Hansen, 391
[3] Ibid, 391
[4] Ibid, 391
[5] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 224.
[6] Wills, 229
[7] Wills, 228

Thumbnail: Jonah JengJONAH JENG is in the process of completing a double degree in Film & Media Studies and Brain & Cognitive Sciences, as well as a Take-Five in Chinese Language & Culture. He loves writing and cinema, two passions that converge in his blog at jonahjeng.wordpress.comMore by Jonah