|Ming troops with captured Wokou, from 'Kang Wo Tu Juan (《抗倭圖卷》)'.|
The first, and in fact typical, Ming response to any threats that came from the sea was to enforce maritime trade prohibition and strengthen coastal defense. This method worked as long as Ming Dynasty had powerful military, however by mid Ming period the military system of Ming Dynasty had deteriorated to the point that no enforcement of maritime trade prohibition could be carried out effectively. Attempts in doing so not only resulted in failure, but actually provoked the Wokou as they saw weaknesses in Ming military system.
In a sense, entire Jia Jing Da Wo Kou (嘉靖大倭寇) period can be seen as Ming's attempt to restructure its weakening military and strengthen its coastal defense. As Ming slowly regained its military power, so did the Wokou threat subsided.
Ming Military During the Sixteenth Century
By sixteenth century, the formal military establishment of the Ming Dynasty, also known as Wei Suo (衛所) system, had mostly collapsed. This dysfunctional military system was the primary reason Wokou became such a serious threat, but Ming court would not sit idly and let the Wokou do as they wished.
In general, troops available to Ming Dynasty could be grouped into following categories. Note that there were significant overlaps between troops from different categories.
Wei Bing (衛兵, lit. 'Guard troop')
Wei Bing were regular troops from Wei Suo. Due to the collapse of Wei Suo system, they were generally useless against the Wokou.
Ke Bing (客兵, lit. 'Guest troop')
As Wei Bing proved to be unreliable, Ke Bing were mobilised. Ke Bing, also known as Diao Bing (調兵, lit. 'Transferred troop') was a catch-all term to describe all troops transferred from other parts of China to deal with Wokou problem. They included troops from still-functioning Wei Suo, Northern troops, border garrisons, imperial guards from the capital, militia arms, as well as auxiliary troops under Tu Si (土司, government-sanctioned hereditary chieftain) system such as Lang Bing (狼兵) and Tu Bing (土兵).
While individually Ke Bing were much more competent than Wei Bing, the fact that they came from different parts of China made them a nightmare to control. Troops of different origin utilised very different organisational, command, and signalling systems, and many didn't even spoke the same language/dialect. Rivalries among Ke Bing were commonplace, often escalating into direct confrontations and killings. Ke Bing from one region sometimes refused to help Ke Bing from another region even while their supposed comrades were being slaughtered by Wokou, causing entire battle line to collapse.
Troops from North China were also unaccustomed with the climate and geographical features of South China, and faced dire consequences as a result. Many of them walked straight into Wokou ambush, or accidentally drowned themselves as they built their camp at a place susceptible to flash flood.
Besides, some Ke Bing, particularly Lang Bing, often caused just as much, if not more, troubles to the local residents as the Wokou.
Mu Bing (募兵, lit. 'Recruited troop')
Mu Bing were new armies specifically raised to combat the Wokou. They were drawn from civilian households of all occupations and social strata, including militias, miners, hunters, merchants, salt peddlers, and even scholars. They also included bodyguards and personal retinues of the generals. Notable Mu Bing included Shaolin monks and Yan Jia Bing (嚴家兵, lit. 'Troop of House Yan').
While Mu Bing had less issues than Ke Bing, most of them were essentially fresh troops. Mu Bing had little understanding in the finer aspects of warfare (with some notable exceptions such as Shaolin monks and retinues of Ming generals). This put them at a disadvantage against Wokou that had years of experience in warfare.
Lian Bing (練兵, lit. 'Trained troop')
Realising the weakness of Mu Bing, some Ming generals opted for better trained troops. The most famous Lian Bing was undoubtedly Qi Jia Jun (戚家軍), although troops trained under Yu Da You (俞大猷) and Tan Lun (譚綸) were equally deadly.
Highly trained and motivated, Lian Bing were able to dispatch Wokou with relative ease. However they were few in numbers, yet had to defend the vast coasts of China from Wokou that massively outnumbered them. It was a testament of their combat prowess that these troops were able to defeat the Wokou with remarkably few casualties despite being constantly overworked and stressed.
Besides troops mobilised by Ming government, many civilians banded together to defend against Wokou on their own initiative. Most militia units fall under the jurisdiction of Bing Bei Dao (兵備道) system, although many raised during this period were outside its control. Militias were known by many names, such as Min Bing (民兵, lit. 'Civilian-soldier'), Min Zhuang (民壯, lit. 'Able-bodied civilian') or Xiang Yong (鄉勇, lit. 'Village brave').
Major Phases in the Campaign Against Wokou
Phase 1: Zhu Wan (朱紈), maritime trade prohibition, and the destruction of Shuangyu (雙嶼)
This period was characterised by the increase of pirate and smuggling activities, including Portuguese raids, to China's coasts, and Zhu Wan's attempts to enforce maritime trade prohibition and strengthen coastal defense in response to the threat.
Zhu Wan forbade all Chinese ships with two or more masts to enter the sea, and by doing so he deprived the smugglers their ships to transport cargo. He also consolidated Ming navy, repairing
damaged ships and equipment, outfitting them with new and larger ships (which he bought or seized from the smugglers, since they no longer had any use of it) and setting up new observation posts and defensive perimeters. Zhu Wan's approach was actually effective, and for a brief time peace returned to China's coasts. Had he not being forced to commit suicide later, he could have ended the Wokou threat right here.
Zhu Wan's effort eventually culminated into the Battle of Port Shuangyu (雙嶼港之戰) in 1548, in which Ming navy led by Lu Tang (盧鏜) razed the smuggling port of Shuangyu to the ground, killing several hundred. Several prominent pirate and Wokou leaders, such as Chinese Xu Dong (許棟) and Japanese Ji Tian (稽天) and Shinshirō (新四郎), were captured and later executed. A subsequent battle, known as Battle of Zhao'an (詔安之戰), had another two hundred Wokou killed, and Wokou leader Li Guang Tou (李光頭, meaning 'Baldy Li') captured and executed.
Zhu Wan's campaign successfully chased the Portuguese out of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. The Portuguese would later settle at Macau and started legitimate trade with Ming Dynasty, and withdrew from pirate activities relatively early. Nevertheless, Zhu Wan's uncompromising stance drew the ire of local merchants and corrupt officials alike, and he (along with many of his subordinates, including Lu Tang) was framed by his political enemies and put to jail. Zhu Wan drank poison and killed himself in the jail in 1549.
Phase 2: Wang Yu (王忬), Zhang Jing (張經) and the great victory at Wang Jiang Jing (王江涇)
The death of Zhu Wan was followed by the wholesale reversal of his policies, and the fleet assembled by Zhu Wan was disbanded. As a result, maritime trade prohibition was no longer in place and Ming effectively abandoned all control of China's coasts. Wokou took full advantage of this situation and their raids quickly intensified.
Realising they've made a grave mistake, Ming court summoned Wang Yu to replace Zhu Wan's position. Upon taking office, Wang Yu immediately reorganised coastal defense and recruited many talented generals such as Yu Da You and Tang Ke Kuan (湯克寬). Wang Yu also released Zhu Wan's subordinates such as Lu Tang from prison. With these talented Ming generals, Wang Yu won several battles and numerous skirmishes against Wokou, and killed famous Wokou leader Xiao Xian (蕭顯). Unfortunately, Wang Yu did not hold office for long. He was transferred to Datong Garrison in 1554.
Zhang Jing replaced Wang Zhi in 1554. Under his leadership, Ming army was finally able to set up a centralised command for the campaign against Wokou. Zhang Jing also mobilised Ke Bing (客兵) to battle Wokou, at first from Shandong, then Lang Bing (狼兵) and Tu Bing (土兵) after he found out Shandong troops were not up to task. During his term of office, Ming army led by Yu Da You, Tang Ke Kuan and Lu Tang scored its first major victory against Wokou at the Battle of Wang Jiang Jing, killing and beheading almost two thousand Wokou, and drowned many more.
Despite Zhang Jing's contribution, he was framed by treacherous court official Zhao Wen Hua (趙文華) and executed, his credit stolen by Zhao Wen Hua. Zhang Jing's death severely demoralised Ming armies and ruined the hard-earned progress of the campaign against Wokou, causing the Wokou problem to exacerbate.
Phase 3: The plot of Hu Zong Xian (胡宗憲)
After the death of Zhang Jing, Ming court appointed Zhou Chong (周珫) to replace him. Zhou Chong only held office for a little more than one month before he was replaced by Yang Yi (楊宜). Yang Yi only held office for half a year, before he too was replaced by Hu Zong Xian.
While Hu Zong Xian was a capable military commander and continued the military campaign of his predecessors, he was best known for his intricate plotting and cunning schemes. His clever use of schemes and deceits caused the Wokou to turn on each other, and he engineered the downfall of almost all major Chinese Wokou leaders such as Xu Hai (徐海), Chen Dong (陳東), Ma Ye (麻葉) and Wang Zhi (汪直).
Phase 4: Rise of Qi Ji Guang (戚继光)
With Hu Zong Xian's success, Wokou lost most of their Chinese supports. This in turn caused the Wokou to revert back to Japanese majority again, making them even more dangerous than before. Nevertheless, Ming army was no longer the weak and corrupt army ten years prior, having accumulated years of experience fighting them.
Compared to senior generals such as Yu Da You, Qi Ji Guang was a newcomer to campaign against Wokou, yet he was just as competent as his seniors. Qi Ji Guang first major campaign was at Taizhou, where he scored his legendary nine victories. After he eradicated the Wokou at Taizhou, Qi Ji Guang went to Fujian to reinforce Yu Da You's army, and together they cleared Fujian of all Wokou, recaptured Xinghua, swept through Xianyou, and defeated Wu Ping (吴平), one of the last prominent Wokou leaders, marking the end of the campaign against Wokou.
Other blog posts about my Wokou series:
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 1
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 2
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 3