14 March 2017

Special Unit of the Ming Dynasty — Jian Ye (尖夜)

Stone inscription detailing a sortie of Ye Bu Shou on Qinhuangdao Great Wall.
Relatively unheard of due to the nature of their mission, Jian Er Shou (尖兒手, lit. 'Sharp hands') and Ye Bu Shou (夜不收, lit. 'Unreceived by night' or 'Unsheltered by night') were nevertheless some of the most elite military units of the Ming Dynasty. Collectively known as Jian Ye (尖夜, lit. 'Sharp night'), these two units served as the eyes and ears of the Ming military.

Jian Shao (尖哨)

While formally enlisted by Ming army, neither Jian Er Shou nor Ye Bu Shou operated under a unified organisation. Different garrisons, border outposts and commanders maintained their own units for different purposes. Nevertheless, in order to fulfil their main responsibilities – reconnaissance, espionage and intelligence gathering, Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou were organised into Jian Shao (尖哨, lit. 'Sharp sentry') units irrespective of their administrative structure. Jian Shao can be further divided into Ming Shao (明哨, lit. 'Bright sentry') and An Shao (暗哨, lit. 'Dark sentry') that served different purposes.

Ming Shao, consisted of majority Jian Er Shou, were the active branch of Jian Shao. In other words, they were spies that actively infiltrated enemy ranks to gather intelligence. Once they successfully infiltrated, Ming Shao were supported by Ban Ling (伴領, lit. 'Companion-guide'), access/sleeper agents that consisted mostly of defectors.

On the other hand, An Shao consisted of both Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou and were the passive (in the sense that they did not actively seek out enemy intelligence and only acted as observers) branch of Jian Shao. They were long range reconnaissance patrols that maintained covert observation posts and monitored enemy movements. An Shao were also responsible for relaying early warnings of impending attack back to the garrisons should the Ming Shao get caught or otherwise unable to perform their duties.

Despite both branches were grouped under Jian Shao, Ming Shao and An Shao operated independently from one another. In fact, agents from both branches were explicitly forbidden from making contact with each other.

Ye Bu Shou (夜不收)

The accurate meaning of Ye Bu Shou was "one that does not get off work after nightfall". True to their namesake, Ye Bu Shou were night operation specialists of the Ming army and served many roles beyond reconnaissance, especially those that required standing vigil during the night. Ye Bu Shou manned warning beacon towers, served as night watchers, signallers, messengers and mounted short range (less than one hundred li from the border) reconnaissance patrols. They also engaged in direct action and unconventional warfare operations behind enemy lines, as well as espionage activities such as sedition and instigate defection. Some commanders also employed Ye Bu Shou as bodyguards, investigators, and prisoner escorts.

Both Jian Shao and Ye Bu Shou acted as forward scout for Ming army during the seasonal Shao Huang (燒荒) operation, establishing security perimeter to ensure the safety of the main army that conducted the burning of (Mongol) pastures. Some Ye Bu Shou also participated in the burning themselves.

Recruitment and training

The works of Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou were physically demanding, thus the recruits must be healthy and fit. Quickness of foot as well as stealth capability were especially prized, as were will, courage, calmness, wit and knowledge. As their works always accompanied great risks, Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou were among the most well-paid troops of the Ming army, earning double pay compared to regular troops. Agents that successfully discovered crucial intelligence were rewarded handsomely, and the families of those that lost their lives on duty were compensated.

As each of the garrisons and commanders handled their own recruitment, Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou came from diverse backgrounds. Many commanders recruited among regular border troops, whom were already accustomed to the harsh military lifestyle. Other Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou were recruited from border dwellers, former captives and enemy defectors, given that local knowledge and ability to speak enemy's language were crucial to espionage activities.

Most of these fresh recruits lacked military experience or espionage training, or both, and had to undergo extensive training before they were ready to be fielded. Whenever possible, Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou on active duty were recalled for retraining semiannually, and they underwent performance assessment frequently. Some commanders also demanded their Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou to train alongside regular troops.


Due to myriad of roles that Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou needed to fulfil, their equipment varied wildly from one another. A Ye Bu Shou guarding a warning beacon tower would have been equipped similarly to a regular troop, while his comrades in the field would be lightly armed, but were given signalling equipment such as signal cannons and paper bombs.

Scouts and spies that operated deep inside enemy territories were dressed in Mongolian clothing and specifically rode Mongol horses (since Mongols knew their horses better than people, and could easily tell apart a Chinese horse from a Mongol one). As these agents often operated far away from the main army for extended period of time, they were minimally supplied and had to forage from enemy territory.

Other equipment of note were special, concealable horn bows and bamboo poison arrows specifically designed to kill horse, used by Ye Bu Shou saboteurs (as horse was a Mongol's most important asset). Ye Bu Shou also used swords, war axes and grenades for night raids.

Spy, scout and special force

While the concepts of reconnaissance, espionage and special operations were almost as old as warfare itself, Jian Er Shou and Ye Bu Shou were some of the earliest military units specifically raised and trained for these roles. The four-layer intelligence and early warning network operated by Jian Ye, consisted of Ming Shao (spies), An Shao (reconnaissance), Jia Pao (架炮, lit. 'Mounting cannon', signallers) and Dun Hou (墩堠, border outposts), was an enormous step up from the ad hoc scouting parties employed by many other militaries of the time. Their ability to successfully infiltrate enemies that had completely different language, customs, values and lifestyle was a testament of their competence.

Jian Ye were far from the the only agents operating at the border. They often cooperated with other agents such as Tong Shi (通事, lit. 'Know-how', interpreter/translator that also served as spy) and personal agents under direct employment of individual commanders or civil officials, although this sometime resulted in interservice rivalry. Ye Bu Shou also shared some of their responsibilities with other units such as Tang Bao (塘報, reconnaissance and messenger unit) and Dun Jun (墩軍, lit. 'Outpost army', military unit tasked with guarding outposts and operating beacon towers), and they often worked together.

Nevertheless, enemies of the Ming were far from helpless against the infiltration of Ming agents. The Mongols were themselves supremely well-versed in the art of espionage, and regularly attempted to purge spies among their ranks or fed them false intelligence. Many Jian Ye were killed on duty, while others were offered bribe and defected. On some occasions, Jian Ye were captured for ransom instead. By late Ming period, Jurchens (later Manchu) were even able to conduct effective counterintelligence operations known as Zhuo Sheng (捉生, helen zhafambi in Manchu language, lit. 'Capture alive') that specifically targeted Ming agents.


  1. Very interesting! Definitely never heard of these units before.

  2. Replies
    1. Sort of. They were more akin to a combination of CIA+Force Recon+Delta Force+Border Patrols. Also more professional and...ugh, "barbaric".

  3. Is there any way to contact you privately? I would like to ask you about a few things. Kind Regards

    1. You can contact me via Google contact form in the "About" tab in this blog.

  4. By any chance do you have any information on groups similar to them earlier in China's history, I did find some groups called Yin-ching,Tai-pai and Koa Chiung. Couldn't really find any detailed information about them though.

    1. Hmm, the names you listed doesn't sound like pinyin and is likely based on Wade–Giles Romanisation (which I am unfamiliar with), so I can only speculate. Throwing the names into Google resulted in Antony Cummins's book titled "In search of the Ninja".

      So, I think Yin-ching & Tai-pai should be "Tai-pai Yin-ching", or "Tai Bai Yin Jing (《太白陰經》)" in pinyin. It's actually the name of a Tang Dynasty book, not some ancient Chinese spy ops.

      Koa Chiung doesn't ring any bell, but the paragraph in the book suggests that it is probably the title of another book.

    2. Thanks and sorry for wasting your time,I actually got those names from there.

      Should have known better, Anthony is not that great of a researcher and doesn't do much research himself this coming from a guy that used to be a fan of him, I had a feeling that stuff was wrong but I was curious to know about other groups similar to the ones in your article.

      So I figured to ask you,even though that chapter of the book( and some other chapters) was pretty bad and super Reaching.

    3. Having quickily skimmed over the book, it appears to be a interesting and entertaining read (Antony Cummin's reputation notwithstanding). Is there anything/any claim that is explicitly wrong in that book?

      BTW, I've always wanted to make some kind of "kickass ninjutsu" blog post too.

  5. Well I will say his books can be pretty entertaining, but I could get multiple reasons why I stop being a fan of his and to take him with a gigantic grain of salt if you want me too but that's a really important right now.

    Don't know really ready to start guess with the whole "dog" or "dog-thief" the thing is as far as I know this was never used Japan to refer to anybody or even in China I can't find that term being used to describe a specific person anywhere, these terms he uses for some type of Chinese connection saying the "art of thievery" in japan( it wasn't considered an art but he seems to think so) was influence and descended from China is really grasping at straws,the Akuto bandits creation in the Nara period have no connection to China, actually one year later when he published his new book on the bansenshukai I looked it on Google Books typing dog / dog-thief in the search engine all that came up was a section about how to deal with guard dogs when infiltrating a castle which tells me he made a mistake, no real surprise there.

    The argument for Akuto bandits nearly improving some techniques that already was there and not playing a really part in Ninjutsu creation fall apart when this is most definitely the case for Fuma Kotaro and the fuma clan who are believed to have originated from Bandits and Ronin,hell they're "battle disrupters", divided into four groups: brigands, pirates, burglars and thieves.

    Actually evidence points to the jizamurai of Iga and koga having their origin in Bandits / Ronin as well.

    I don't know where he gets the idea that some people believe Kusuhoki masashige created ninjutsu, he suspected to play a role in its development that's it and him saying that would leave out the Yoshimori and art of War parts in its origin when it really wouldn't especially considering Yoshimori fought alongside him, also records tells us he was a Akutô so more fire for that Flame.

    He seems to have an narrow view only really focusing on Iga and Koga, then again we don't have much information about other areas famous for Ninjutsu so I can't really blame him to an extent, he doesn't seem to realize it's likely Ninjutsu develop all over the country with no one single origin,he has an extreme focus on The Art of War when it's questionable if Koga and Iga had access to it before they reach high status being made personal guards to the Tokugawa Circle,the Akuto bandits definitely did not have access to it or some other works believed to have influence ninjutsu and these guys did stuff extremely associated with Ninja, ninjutsu from different areas of the country likely have their Origins from different circumstances / inspirations.

    The part when I said extremely reaching was referring to his section about trying to make a Chinese ninja connection through some equipment that their similarities to equipment used in ninja manuals when really none of that stuff except for maybe one really provide strong evidence for this, I mean really a rope ladder that looks identical to one found in a ninja manual what does he expect it's made with the same kind of art style and how different did he expect a rope ladder to be from two different countries it's a ladder and caltrops arguably the earliest form of landmines that's been used all over the world from entirely separate civilizations he's not making a strong case ironically there actually at least 2 piece of equipment AFAIK that would have made for better Choices than what he use.

    1. By the way here are those two piece of equipment I mention



      What is second one look at the ladder on the far right it look like stuff I seen in Chinese Manuals sure both are items anybody could come up with separately they're pretty simple piece of equipment and of course it wouldn't be a specific connection to ninja most of the stuff in ninja manuals aren't exclusively Ninja anyway but it's stronger than what he presented in his book.

    2. The part where it says "what is the second one" it supposed to say "with the second one" sorry don't know what went wrong

    3. Thanks for the reply, I will keep them in mind when I read up his book in details. I will also look up the "dog-thief" thing and see what comes up.

      That being said, many (not all) equipment in Bansenshukai are pretty clearly copied from earlier Chinese manuals, and it's actually very hard to assume otherwise. Reasons below:

      1) Since the ideas themselves are not novel, it's actually pretty easy to come out with your own design that's different from the others (for example, there must be several ways to make a rope ladder). The fact that Bansenshukai and Chinese manuals have nearly identical design actually lend support to the notion that one copied from the other.

      2) If it's only one or two identical designs, one can maybe chalk them up to coincidence, but there are multiple items with identical Chinese counterparts, and it's unlike coincidence will happen THAT many times.

      3) It's not just the equipment designs that are identical, the illustrations are also very similar. For example, the "cat tail raft" illustration in Bansenshukai is tilted to the left, whereas similarly tilted illustrations can be found in several Chinese manuals.

    4. Thanks didn't think of that,I still think he could have chosen better examples though the Rope ladder design is just looks way too simple and basic it's not that different from rope ladders today and Actually I think I seen something like the "cat tail raft" in European art not sure about that though, what are the other items that are in Chinese manuals by the way,I'm curious to know.

      Honestly I would not recommend checking out his books for several reasons one of which is another historian( a real one) Karl F. Friday, wrote an article about him on a private Facebook page recommending to stay away from his work, but if you're actually curious about the book, I can give you a link to the entire book for free.

    5. On top of that, there are some equipment from Bansenshukai that doesn't seem very practical for a ninja, which suggest that these are imported ideas (i.e. they are developed for different circumstances). A good example is the jar raft.

      Chinese designed the jar raft because they made an insane amount of pottery jars, so jars were readily available should the need to improvise a raft arise. They also designed the raft for military purpose in mind, hence spears and polearms used to tie the jars together.

      For the ninja, I don't think they would want to carry a spear around, much less multiple spears. Pottery also breaks rather easily, and makes a lound cracking sound should it shatters, which would be the last thing a ninja wanted. In addition, the pottery industry kicked off rather late in Japan, so there shouldn't be that many cheap expendable jars lying around for the ninja to use.

    6. "What are the other items that are in Chinese manuals by the way,I'm curious to know."

      Flipping through the ninja tools section of the English-translated Bansenshukai quickily, it appears that most ladders come from Chinese manuals (with the exception of "high ladder"). So are the jar raft and the cat tail raft. I am uncertain about the floating bridge - it looks so familiar, but I cannot recall whether I've seen it in Chinese manual. These are all items useful for the military on the march or during siege, rather than espionage tools.

      Surprisingly, the rocket illustrations in Bansenshukai do not appear to be directly copied from Chinese manuals, even though all rockets look pretty much identical.

    7. The thing with the bansenshukai is from this website I got.

      "The original hand written text of the Bansenshukai does not exist anymore. Instead, there are original copies were produced from the original by individuals during the Edo period. We cannot tell whether the current "original copies" are texts copied directly from the original, or are copies of copies. This is not unusual for texts meant to have a wide circulation, similar to many other important texts of which only copies are left."

      It was written in 1674( close to that number) then what happened was as ninja where in Decline,
      Some Koka-mono traveled the distance to Edo to appeal to the shogunate in the hope of recovering their status by offering them the Bansenshukai manual in 1789. To their disappointment, however, their appeal was not accepted.

      Which is how we have this manual now the translated one is based on the that was given to the shogun, some people are of the opinion that's some of that stuff does not work one video I saw mentions not sure about this but supposedly the illustrations are suspiciously radioactively added to make it look more "ninja-like".

      It could be the people from Koga adding in a few things from some Chinese manuals and other stuff that they probably made up like that "underwater helmet" as well as some Edo period stuff, I do know that supposedly last volume of the book was added in later no idea if it was by the people looking for employment or could be that stuff was added over the years before it was given to the Shogun.

      What would be your personal opinion on the matter.

      That is interesting by the way completely forgot about the rockets in that thing feel so stupid now would have figured those would have been 100% direct copies, oh and what do you think about these grappling hooks in the ninpuden( which this thing has its own kind of worse)


    8. I will not be surprised if there are some impractical ideas mixed into the Bansenshukai - this is common when a craft is in decline, and people hoping to revive it will pitch some interesting but impractical ideas hoping that at least some will stick. If you look at the Chinese manuals (or just read my blog), they are full of impracical ideas too.

      Interestingly I don't think the rockets in Bansenshukai are directly copied from Chinese manuals, unlike the rope ladders/other ladders. Similarly, ninja grappling hooks are not directly copied from Chinese manuals as they are quite different.

    9. This is worth going over with Gunbai should he decide to make an article about ninja tools and thanks a lot by the way it has been a really interesting discussion.

    10. This also makes me really want to write something about some kind of "cool Chinese ninja". "Ye Bu Shou" mentioned in this blog post was perhaps the closest Ming equivalent of ninja, but there's so much more about espionage to research and write about.

      By the way, Ye Bu Shou's name and roles were really reminiscent of Game of Throne Night's Watch, which makes them all the more badass. Unfortunately, by Qing period the name Ye Bu Shou somehow became associated with...potty pot.

  6. @Someone I mistakenly deleted the comments

    No, they didn't wear mask or wrap their faces in clothes as far as I am aware (that will make them stand out among their enemies). They also didn't assassinate emperors.

    Ye Bu Shou's equipment are already mentioned in the article, special mentions are bow + poisoned arrow, sword, axe, and grenade.

    1. but was there a Chinese clan that was similar to ninjas in the ming dynasty?

    2. No such clan. And "Midnight Thief" never existed, whatever that is.

      I wonder if you are deceived by some kind of fake McDojo history or someone's attempt at creating another "Lin Kuei" (the so-called "Chinese precusor of ninja").


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