Yelu (1585-1672): Hong Taiji’s Chief Military Strategist


Ding JieyuanMy fictional character is named Yelu. He was the chief advisor and military strategist for Hong Taiji and the Shunzhi Emperor. He lived during the Ming-Qing dynastic transition. As to his status, Yelu was well respected but not powerful, because he can only advise the Manchu leaders. He cannot make final decisions.

He was born in 1585 in Manchuria, 200 miles northeast of Shenyang in modern day Liaoyuan. His father was a relative of Nurhaci. His mother was from a wealthy family that traded horses with the Mongols. His father was a high ranking member of the Aisin Gioro clan who worked among a counsel of advisors to Nurhaci.

Yelu had a broad education. His mother paid for him to learn a variety of topics including The Five Classics and The Four Books on Confucianism. He learnt how to write in Chinese, Mongolian, and Manchu script. But he had little interest in Confucius. Nurhaci was already leading battles that caused instability in Manchuria, his homeland. He felt like he needed to learn about how to win battles. So, he used the allowance money that his mother gave him to buy books on war, which he liked to read in his spare time. He read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and became an admirer of Zhuge Liang. He also read the Art of War by Sun-Tsu. He was keen about learning the art of warfare. He mastered wielding weapons such as the sword, the spear and archery. He learnt to ride the horses that his mother’s family gave him, and he learnt to shoot arrows while he was on horseback.

In 1612, Nurhaci names his clan as Aisin Gioro clan. Yelu was 27 years of age. Yelu is a man with a big head and a big brain that makes him smart. Yelu’s older brother Maca was in charge of supplying Nurhaci’s troops with horses. Yelu’s brother Maca then had dinner with Nurhaci and invited Yelu. Nurhaci told him about how he conducted battles. Yelu commended Nurhaci’s successes when Nurhaci’s success was in accord with the book called the Art of War. Yelu was able to recite quotes from the Art of War. Yelu did not criticize Nurhaci but suggested that Nurhaci do things a little differently so to be in accord with the Art of War book. Nurhaci was impressed by Yelu’s ability to quote Art of War and his ability to apply the concepts in the book to the current state of war in Manchuria. So Nurhaci gave Yelu the position of his father as an advisor who worked among the other advisors of the Aisin Gioro clan for Hong Taiji. Yelu quickly became familiar with the way things are decided by the high status clan members. Yelu provided advice not only on military matters but on political and cultural matters as well.

Yelu would ride his horse behind the frontlines of battle and observe how the enemies are organized and ride back to the meet the generals and strategists to report his observations and make suggestions. Yelu also coordinated the army’s supply lines. He made sure there were enough supply of horses, food, swords, armor and reinforcements of troops. Yelu was well versed in history. He knew that in the past, the Chinese army would fly a man up on a huge kite to observe enemy formations. Yelu employed this tactic to the surprise of many.

As the years went by, Yelu went up in the ranks and became more and more respected because Nurhaci realized how Hong Taiji was becoming more and more capable in winning battles as a result of taking advice from Yelu. In 1615, Yelu and other advisors suggested that the number of banners should be doubled from 4 to 8 by splitting the original 4 banners each into two, one of which is bordered and the other was plain.[i]

In 1619, the Korean kingdom of Joseon supplied the Ming with 10,000 soldiers to help the Ming in their attack against Nurhaci.[ii] But according to Hanson, “the Jurchen armies…won their first significant victory in 1619 and continued to expand into northeast China…”[iii] Yelu was in rage despite the fact that the Korean General Gang Hong-rip surrendered to Nurhaci stating that the Koreans only attacked Nurhaci’s troops because they owed an obligation to the Ming rulers of China.[iv] Yelu then began to persuade Hong Taiji to lead an invasion Joseon Korea so that Korea will be forced to abandon their loyalty for the Ming and be forced to help the Manchus invade Ming China. Yelu also suggested that the Manchus ally themselves with the Mongols and the Chinese people north of the Great Wall. Yelu wrote numerous letters in Chinese and Mongolian to coordinate the establishment of an alliance between these three ethnic groups of people.

In 1627, Hong Taiji decided to lead the First Manchu Invasion of Korea with encouragement from Yelu. Hong Taiji attacked because of what happened in 1619. Yelu provided strategy for major battles. Yelu’s brother Maca supplied some of the troops with Mongolian horses that were better suited for battle than the Korean horses, which were taller and had thinner legs than the Mongolian horses.

Around the same time, in the 1620s and 1630s, there were so many Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu troops that Hong Taiji split each of the 8 banners into three in order to organize banners into three ethnic groups: Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu.[v] The Chinese were the lowest rank. Mongolians were in the middle rank and the Manchus were ranked at the top. Yelu facilitated this reorganization of the 8 banners. In 1635, Hong Taiji wanted to name the Jurchen people Manchus and Yelu told him it was a good idea.

In 1636, Hong Taiji led the Manchu and Mongol banners to invade Korea in what is known as the 2nd Manchu invasion of Korea.[vi] A 45 day siege was conducted. Yelu was a key person in drafting plans for the invasion and the siege.

In 1643, Hong Taiji died. Dorgon quickly defeated his rivals and took up the solid white banner. Dorgon became the regent for the Shunzhi Emperor. Yelu was very cunning. He never sided with anyone who Dorgon would overthrow. So Yelu kept his position as chief advisor and military strategist. Yelu was only loyal to whoever was in power.

The highlight of Yelu’s career came in 1644. In May 1644, Yelu advised that the banner men concentrate forces at the Shanhai pass. General Wu Sangui opened the gate of the Great Wall because Li Zicheng and his peasant forces have taken over Beijing and were coming to defeat Wu Sangui. According to Hanson, “Li Zicheng attracted many new followers every time he defeated the Ming troops.”[vii] Yelu communicated extensively with Wu Sangui and made a deal in which the Manchus and the Chinese forces under Wu Sangui would work together to defeat the peasant rebels. The “Dashing King” Li Zicheng was defeated and Beijing came under the control of the Manchus. Li Zicheng disappeared. Yelu instructed the Manchu generals to keep the troops well fed and make the soldier exercise when they had nothing to do. To ensure there was enough food for the troops, Yelu made a deal with the wealthy landlords who were under the threat of peasant rebellions. 5/8 of the grain owned by wealthy landlords would go to feed the banner men, who in exchange protected the landlords from peasant rebels. This deal was accepted because it was generous compared to the usual tax in which 7/8 of the grains produced by peasant were taken.

Yelu was reassigned to cultivating the Shunzhi Emperor in the Art of War. But Yelu kept himself up to date about the conquest of South China. Yelu was glad to find out through spies that Zheng Zhilong “continued to make delays in sending his own troops inland and to send far fewer than his assigned quotas”[viii] in 1645.

Yelu knew that he must learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes and to copy successful tactics used in the past, but he did not always take heed of it. In one instance, Yelu took heed of history. Yelu thought that the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty did not last long and that mass killing of Chinese by the Mongols did not prevent rebellions. Yelu also felt that it was morally wrong to commit massacres. He advised the military officials not to commit the Yangzhou massacre in South China. But in 1645, Prince Dodo and the banner men did it anyways.[ix] Because Yelu showed sympathy for the Chinese people who were conquered, Prince Dodo and several others noticed Yelu was being disagreeable, but no harm came to Yelu. However, in another instance, Yelu did not take heed of history. He ignored the fact that the Mongol minority could not hold China together without the help of Chinese Confucian scholars and officials. He believed that only Manchu officials could be trusted with power. After the Manchus conquered Beijing and the rest of China, many Manchus adopted Chinese lifestyles and begged the Chinese Confucian scholars and officials to work for the Manchus in ruling China. Thus, the Manchus reinstated the holding of the Civil Service Examinations. Yelu was in charge of cultivating and protecting the child Emperor—the Shunzhi Emperor. Yelu did not think this was important for Shunzhi Emperor to adopt Chinese culture and use Chinese officials to rule the empire, but he did not oppose the Shunzhi Emperor and the other Manchu officials who did. The problem with Yelu was that he was very proud of his Manchu identity. He looked down on the Chinese. He believed the Chinese lived too comfortably. Yelu promoted a Spartan lifestyle. He thought that Manchus have more gut. He did not take Confucian values seriously. He was much more of a practical man of war than a Confucian scholar who wrote poetry and practiced calligraphy. He never observed the Confucian ritual of mourning following the death of a family member or parent. According to Hanson, “Chinese-language sources describe the Manchu emperors just as though they were Chinese emperors, wearing Chinese clothing, speaking and writing excellent Chinese, and patronizing Chinese arts.”[x] Yelu found this to be disconcerting. How could his people dress, talk and act like their former enemy?

Yelu believed that Korea should be a tributary state to the Qing Dynasty. Yelu believed that the Koreans had a unique identity that was too different from the Manchus and the Chinese. He believed that the Koreans should maintain their unique identity and not be absorbed by the Chinese empire. So, Yelu fought against a general who wanted to lead the third invasion of Korea and become the king of Korea. Yelu prevented that from happening.

Yelu held up ideas of ethnic harmony, but not ethnic equality. He believed that Koreans, Chinese, Manchus and Mongolians were born as equals but should not be treated as equals. He discriminated by race and ethnicity and held some prejudices against the Mongols and the Chinese. This was because he never came to trust Mongolian allies and Chinese allies due to the numerous battles they fought in history. He knew that the Mongolians, Chinese, and Manchus held grudges against each other from battles throughout history. Children of the Chinese soldiers were taught to hate the Manchus and vice versa. But Yelu thought that through interracial marriages between the Chinese and the Manchus, this problem would go away. So Yelu sided with Shunzhi Emperor’s decision to allow Chinese civilian men to marry Manchu women from the Banners with the permission of the Board of Revenue if the Manchu women were registered or had the permission of their banner captain if they were unregistered commoners.[xi] But when regent Dorgon wanted to ban intermarriage by issuing a decree,[xii] Yelu quickly sided with Dorgon because he did not want to challenge Dorgon. Yelu is very flexible and adapts by supporting whoever had the power to issue decrees. He was loyal to whoever was in power.

According to Sun-Tsu in the Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”[xiii] Yelu knew this. He supported negotiations with Zheng Chenggong. Because of Yelu’s input at the royal court, in 1652, “the Qing court made suggestions for a negotiated settlement in which Zheng Chenggong would receive many of the honors and privileges his father had been promised.”[xiv]

Yelu requested retirement in 1660 because the situation in the royal palace was getting intense. Not everyone was happy with the Shunzhi Emperor. He did not know who he should side with. If he picked the wrong side or said the wrong things, he could lose his life. So he used the excuse that he missed home and that he was less sharp than he used to be in the 1640s. Shunzhi Emperor died the next year in 1661.

In his hometown, Yelu was known as a sociable man who held parties but never got drunk. He distrusted the three feudatories. When he hosted parties, he didn’t invite Mongols and Chinese. He felt much more at home with only Manchus at his party although Manchus several generations younger than him trusted the three feudatories whereas Yelu did not. This is because Yelu lived through a lot of battles fought against the Chinese.

As Yelu grew older, he became less skilled in horse riding and archery, but he became good at using muskets and cannons. He funded the development of better cannons and muskets. According to John Wills, “A few intelligent officials noticed [Portuguese] excellent cannon and began to copy them.”[xv] Yelu had Portuguese cannons and muskets copied. He also improved upon them.

He was against foot binding because he thought that bound feet were ugly and that foot binding disabled women. He liked how Manchu women never bound their feet. This is in accord with the fact that Yelu thought the Manchu culture was superior. He thought the Chinese practice of foot binding was a degenerate practice, and that several months of mourning for dead parents was too much.

Yelu continued to distrust the Chinese feudatories until the day of his death. Yelu thought the three feudatories will one day team up and revolt against Manchu minority throughout China south of Beijing and Shenyang. One day, Yelu’s left side was paralyzed and hours later, he was pronounced dead in 1672. Modern speculators thought that he died of a stroke. Sure enough, the Three Feudatories revolted in 1673 and 1674.[xvi]

The Ming-Qing Dynastic Transition was the bloodiest in Chinese history. It lasted for about half of a century. Yelu helped Hong Taiji and his generals in making key decisions in battle, especially from 1643 to 1644. These decisions turned out to be favorable for the establishment of the Qing Dynasty.


[i] “Eight Banners”, Wikipedia, Web. <>.
[ii] “First Manchu invasion of Korea”, Wikipedia, Web. <>.
[iii] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. New York: Norton, 2015. Print. Page 382.
[iv]First Manchu invasion of Korea
[v]Eight Banners
[vi]Eight Banners
[vii] Hanson, 382.
[viii] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, Print. Page 223.
[ix] “Yangzhou massacre”, Wikipedia. Web. <>.
[x] Hanson, 385.
[xi]Eight Banners
[xii]Eight Banners
[xiii] “The Art of War Quotes”, Good Reads, Web. <>.
[xiv] Wills, 226.
[xv] Wills, 217.
[xvi]Eight Banners

Thumbnail: Jieyuan Ding

JIEYUAN DING is a senior at the University of Rochester (class of 2016). Jieyuan enjoys reading about history, playing the violin, watching movies and watching the news. More by Jieyuan