Jianruiying - Special forces of the Qing | Mandarin Mansion

Jianruiying - Special forces of the Qing

By Peter Dekker - April 18, 2016

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 and Greater Jinchuan, each ruled by their own kings, who doubled as Lamas in the old Tibetan Bon religion.

So far the Qing had governed the area with "loose reins", which meant as much as bestowing official titles to local chieftains and encouraging them to maintain peace. In 1747, a large scale war broke out between Greater Jinchuan (大金川) and Lesser Jinchuan (小金川). 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 accustomed to war, and well prepared for it.

The Qing army's main strength, the elite Manchu mounted archers, were useless in this terrain and the Green Standard Army had great trouble transporting and setting up their cannon. The Qing army sustained great losses as their conventional ways of warfare proved ineffective against the Jinchuan rebels, who made clever use of the terrain and their fortifications.

People from Lesser Jinchuan (left) and Greater Jinchuan (right). From the woodblocks of the "Illustrated Qing Tributaries" (皇清职贡图).

Jinchuan type fortifications in Danba, Sichuan. Artwork from an 18th century Chinese copperplate print, commemorating the 2nd Jinchuan war. Photographs from: Western Sichuan: Danba Tibetan village

The emperor's new approach

The Qianlong emperor often had a hands-on approach on things. 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, west of Beijing.

Meanwhile the Qing army in Jinchuan was sustaining some serious defeats. 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 afterwards 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 to found the jianruiying.

Formation of the Jianruiying

Despite the limited use that could have been made of them in this short period of service, the emperor firmly believed in these elite troops. Upon their return in 1749 the Qianlong emperor erected a temple named "The Temple of True Victory" at the Fragrant Hills, and a commemorative stele in honor of them. He organized them as an official battalion that were 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 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.

Jianruiying banners and uniforms according to the regulations set in 1749. Based on woodblock prints from the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi.
Top: Banners of the Jianruiying regimental commanders. Color and wing designation added by myself.
Bottom: Left: xinggua or jacket of the jianruiying qianfeng zuoling or Jianruiying Vanguard company commander, each leading ten men. Right: Jacket of the jianruiying soldiers. Colors added by myself.

Part of the stele at the Temple of True Victory reads:

...my soldiers had not exhausted their skill when the peace was made, and I did not want them to forget these old tactics. Hence I commanded that they should continue their training even though their work was done and the Golden River had been pacified. I ordered materials be collected and an auspicious date be set for beginning the erection of a temple and towers in their honor. This temple I have named shishengsi (實勝寺), or Temple of True Victory. These skillful soldiers should not be disbanded either, so I have built for them the Jianrui Garrisons on both sides of the Temple of True Victory.

When my ancestor, Emperor Taizong, with part of his army defeated 130,000 troops of the Ming Dynasty at Sung Shan and at Hsing Shan, he built the Temple of True Victory at Mukden in honor of his success. Although my victory on the Golden River was only the defeat of minor rebels not to be compared with the armies of the Ming Dynasty, like a small pool receiving the waters from the KunMing Lake, yet it was a victory not to be forgotten.


The jianruiying training grounds

The Jianruiying remained stationed at the Fragrant Hills where headquarters, barracks and training facilities were built, along with schools for their children. The unit soon grew to as many as 3000 men. After the war, 82 prisoners from Jinchuan settled in the area and built a total of 62 of their typical towers, some of which for themselves to live in and others for the Jianruiying to practice on. The waterborne exercises were done on Kunming lake.

The Fragrant Hills training grounds included an oval building, the “Round Wall" (團成) which was built in 1748. It constitutes of an oval wall of 65 by 40 meters across, with 11 meter high walls that were 5 meters thick. This is about the size of Beijing's city walls. It has two plaques with the calligraphy of the Qianlong emperor on it. It was used to scaling exercises and other drills, sometimes under direct supervision of the emperor. The round wall and one fortified tower remains on the training grounds until today, the Round Wall was restored to its former Qianlong period glory in the 1990's.

Some photographs of the Jianruiying training grounds taken in the early 1930's. (From Carrol B. Malone, HISTORY OF THE PEKING SUMMER PALACES UNDER THE CH'ING DYNASTY, Urbana 1934.)

Jianruiying soldiers about to commence training with ladders at their Fragrant Hills training facility.
From a late Qing painting displayed at the training hall today.

I visited the training grounds when I was living in Beijing in 2007. The site is restored and there is even a small museum housed in the remaining buildings with information about the history of the Jianruiying and some displays of weapons. Here some pictures of that visit:

The "Round City" training facility.

Auxiliary building of the "Round City" training facility.

Inside the round wall.

Stairs leading back up to the round wall.

The platform from which the emperor and commanders oversaw the training.

Replica of a Jinchuan fortification that was practiced on. Cannon was added later.

Beautiful views over the Fragrant Hills site.

Jianruiying weapons and equipment

Mandarin Mansion being an antique arms site, this is probably the part you've been waiting for! Several texts make mention of the special weapons used by the Jianruiying. One of them is the Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式), or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty". This is a 1766 publication based on a 1759 manuscript that contains anything from flags to weapons, closting and musical instruments. According to this text, all designs were made official in the 14th year of Qianlong, corresponding to 1749 or 1750 depending on the month. Here the pages that describe the specialized equipment used exclusively by the Jianruiying followed by my translations:

According to the design set in the 14th year of the Qianlong reign:

Made of standard wood. Total height is 2 zhang. It has 24 steps and is 1 chi 2 cun wide on top and 2 chi wide at the base. Every second step is wider than the former, protruding on the sides. On either sides of the top are iron wheels connected to the top rung. Two wooden sticks, serving as handles, hook to the top step with iron hooks.”

2 zhang equals closely to seven meters when converting to the armorer's measurements of the high Qing.1 The two sticks were meant to push the ladder up against a wall, the wheels helped it roll up as quick as possible. The ropes, on the other hand, served to keep the defenders from pushing the ladder over. A pretty clever design.

A cloud ladder on display at the Jianruiying training grounds museum.

1. Sizes were not as standardized as they were today, and the chi ruler had different lengths according to profession, city, or even differed between various guilds within the same profession in the same city. Based on existing examples of Qing military equipment in several Beijing museums I re-calculated the imperial armorer's ruler at about 35cm per chi, which is slightly longer than the generally accepted 32cm conversion.

According to the design set in the 14th year of the Qianlong reign:

Made of forged iron, the blade is 2 chi 3 cun long. The handle is 3 cun 2 fen long. The fittings are made of brass. The rest is similar to the style of the officer’s peidao.”

(The officer’s peidao treated in this text has a leather covered scabbard, blue wrist lanyard and blue silk handle wrap. The scabbard color is not specified, although on artwork of this period they are almost invariably green, or sometimes black.)

The saber is about 91 cm long, converted to my proposed Qing armorer's chi of around 35 cm.

One of the most interesting things about this saber is not mentioned, but depicted: The style is yuanshi or round style and represents one of the earliest depictions of this style. The norm at the time were swords with angular cross-section hilts and scabbard, and simple angular fittings en-suite. This round style had scabbards and handles of a round cross-section, and customarily came with fittings with stylized cloud designs. Imperial troops were also called "heavenly troops" and their depiction on weapons referred to the troops executing heaven's will. The only other yuanshi style sabers in regulations of the time were reserved for princes.

In the decades to come, yuanshi would gradually replace fangshi as the standard military saber. This was probably due to a trickle-down effect, where ordinary soldiers wanted to be like the elite. At the end of the Qing, yuanshi sabers were the standard pattern for the rank and file, the angular style all but replaced entirely.

According to the design set in the 14th year of the Qianlong reign:

Spearhead made of forged iron [as to produce steel], overall 1 zhang 3 cun long. Spearhead is 9 cun long. It has a triangular point with a central ridge. The wooden shaft is 9 chi long and the circumference is 4 cun 6 fen. It has steel edge like a knife inserted in the side, glued into the spear, that is 1 chi 4 cun long and 5 fen wide. Under [the spearhead] are connected two wooden balls with black horse hair. End steel fitting is 4 cun long.

The spear is about 360 cm long, converted to my proposed Qing armorer's chi of around 35 cm.

This spear is an interesting mix of two spears that were already in use by the Qing army: The huqiang (虎槍) or “tiger spear” used by elite Tiger Spear units, and the Green Standard Army’s dingqiang (釘槍) or “nail spear”. The tiger spear is a Manchu hunting spear used for large and dangerous game. It has two crossbars attached by straps of leather, right behind the tip. These bars prevent the animal from getting through the spear and reaching its wielder. The nail spear is a long bamboo spear with a narrow spearhead and a sharp edge glued into the side of the shaft.

Ayusi the Valiant with his "nail spear", notice the blade glued into the side of the shaft.

A "tiger spear" worn by a member of an imperial hunting party accompanying the Qianlong emperor. Several tiger spears survived, and are now in the collections of the Beijing Military Museum, and the Palace Museums in Beijing and Shenyang.

On the Jianruiying spear these two special features are combined, but the crossbars are replaced with balls. The edge glued into the side of the shaft discourages an opponent from grabbing the shaft, and may have allowed for special techniques to deal more damage. The crossbars were probably replaced with balls because human opponents can more easily grab such crossbars in order to gain control over the spear. All in all, a very interesting spear. To my knowledge, no antique specimens have surfaced yet.

According to the design set in the 14th year of the Qianlong reign:

Made of forged iron. The stave shaped like bamboo sections, 2 chi 3 cun 5 fen long. It’s guard is an iron disc, 1.5 fen thick. Handle is 6 cun long, with a circumference of 3 cun. Made of wood, lacquered black, and with an iron pommel or wrapped with green silk cord. Fittings are damascened in gold.

The bian is about 103 cm long, converted to my proposed Qing armorer's chi of around 35 cm.

These bian are very heavy weapons, antique examples often weighing over two kilos, that's twice the weight of a good, heavy military saber of the period. Advantages are that they are very hard to defend against, can destroy edged weapons, and armor is no match for them. The weight requires considerable strength and stamina to wield them effectively. This is probably why in the Qing, you only see them issued to elite units like the Jianruiying.

An antique fighting bian from my private collection. Of excellent workmanship throughout, with a heavy segmented rod with sharp corners that can "bite" into armor, preventing it to slide off during a hit. 94 cm long overall, rod 75 cm. Weight is 2.2 kg. P.o.b. 12.5 cm ahead of guard.

Overview of Jianruiying equipment

The Qinding Junqi Zeli (欽定軍器則例) or "Regulations and precedents on military equipment" of the 56th year of the Qianlong reign (1792) covers the construction and maintenance of jianruiying equipment.

The first page of the Jianruiying equipment regulations of the Qinding Junqi Zeli.

To be provided and repaired by the Qing state:
Cloud ladders
Ladder fork poles
Ladder pulling ropes
Large dragon banners
Dragon banners
Large plain banners
Plain banners
Cotton armors
Imperial guard tents
Imperial guard plum needle arrows
Conch shell horns

Equipment to be periodically maintained:
“Life” banners
Unmounted horse trappings
Rider's horse trappings
Long spear
Wooden saber
Blunt arrowhead for horseback archery arrows
Lance stopping shield
Arrow shafts
Wrestling belt
Mast rope

Officers prepare the following equipment:
Regulation jacket

Soldiers prepare for themselves the following equipment:
Nine dragon coat
Powder flask
Regulation jacket
Daily regulation uniform

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 that kept attacking Tibet and Mongol tribes who were allied to the Qing. It resulted in a Qing victory that 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 another 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.


The Second Jinchuan War

In July 1771, trouble broke out in Jinchuan 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. 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. December 10, 1773 Agui commanded Hailancha to advance. The conquest of the towers in lesser Jinchuan went quick 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, From Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010.

Conquest of the Ripang mountain.

General Agui, who lead the 2nd Jinchuan campaign, and one of his trusted commanders, Mingliang.

Officer Suliyang of the jianruiying. This war hero was commemorated no less than two times in the Hall of Purple Brightness for his bravery in the 2nd Jinchuan war and the Taiwan campaigns..

Other 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 its edge. China in general was in a bad state of economic decline and suffered severel defeats by Western powers. In 1860 the Second Opium War broke out. British and French troops attacked Beijing. The Jianruiying suffered heavy casualties, and ultimately was defeated. Their last combat mission was in August 1900 when the allied forces of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing during the Boxer Uprising. They 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 modern Western style training.

Further reading:
Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Culture of War in China, I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001.
Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010. Available online.

Primary sources
皇朝禮器圖式 (Huangchao Liqi Tushi) "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty" from a 1766 woodblock print edition.
欽定軍器則例 (Qinding Junqi Zeli) "Regulations and precedents on military equipment", 56th year of Qianlong, corresponding to 1792.

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