Enemy of the Ming — Burmese Toungoo Empire

Bayinnaung Kyawhtin Nawrahta
Statue of Bayinnaung, legendary warrior king of the Toungoo Empire.
Rise of the Burmese
The Burmese Toungoo Dynasty, also known as First Toungoo Empire, was the largest and most powerful empire in the history of Southeast Asia, perhaps second only to the Ming Empire itself. Under its early kings Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, Toungoo Empire was vigorously expansionist, annexing Hanthawaddy Kingdom, Ava Kingdom, Prome Kingdom, Manipur, Lan Na Kingdom, Lan Xang Kingdom, Ayutthaya Kingdom, and large portion of Shan States through military conquest.

However, many of the conquered lands, in particular Shan States, Lan Na Kingdom and Lan Xang Kingdom, were either Ming territories or under its sphere of influence. Thus, Burmese incursion into these lands inevitably led to a series of border clashes between two of the largest empires of Asia. The conflict reached its peak during the reign of Nanda Bayin, Bayinnaung's eldest son.

As a powerful nation built upon war, Toungoo Empire provided its army with full range of weaponry to aid in its military conquest. Common weapons included bows and arrows, spears, javelins, and the characteristic dha lwei swords. Less commonly, Burmese troops also used glaives that closely resemble Japanese naginata (なぎなた or 薙刀) and Chinese Yan Yue Dao (偃月刀), as well as the iconic mak choppers. Shan troops loyal to the Burmese were also known to use poisoned crossbows.

Contact with the Portuguese allowed Toungoo Empire access to large quantities of state-of-the-art firearms, particularly matchlock arquebuses and cannons. In fact, virtually all gunners and artillerymen of Toungoo army were Portuguese mercenaries in service to the Burmese crown.

Due to the hot and humid climate of continental Southeast Asia, most Burmese troops wore little to no armour, preferring to use shields for personal protection. Only officers and guards wore helmets and possibly body armours.

Toungoo Empire had a standing army organised under the ahmudan system, in which local villages were required to provide a predetermined quota of men to serve in the king's army. These ahmudan troops were tattooed with the symbols of their military formations, and lived in state-granted settlements surrounding the capital. Numbered only several thousand, the army was small relative to the size of Toungoo Empire.

During a campaign, the king would draw upon his athi (free peasant) subjects and vassal kingdoms to raise a much larger wartime army. This practise allowed the king to quickly replenish losses, and had the potential to snowball the size of the army as military campaign gained momentum. As Toungoo Empire grew in size, it incorporated many conquered people into its fold, effectively turning its army into a multi-ethnic force, with many Mon, Shan, Indian and Portuguese auxiliaries fighting alongside Bamar troops.

Toungoo army consisted of three major branches, namely infantry, cavalry and elephantry. Elephant warriors enjoyed the most prestigious position in Toungoo army. Cavalrymen ranked below their elephant-riding counterpart, while infantry filled the lowest rung in the hierarchy. It should be noted that Toungoo artillery corps, being made up of foreign (Portuguese and Indian Muslim) specialists, likely fall outside of this structure, and enjoyed favourable treatment despite not being mounted.

Toungoo Empire did not maintain a standing navy, although its army made use of paddled war boats for riverine warfare, or during flash flood.

The rise of Toungoo Empire changed the warfare in continental Southeast Asia from its classical model of raid, slave-taking and subjugation between city-states and petty kingdoms, into that of large scale, trans-regional conquest. However, Burmese military tactics remained largely unchanged despite massive increase in the scale of warfare and adoption of advanced European firearms.

For the most part, continental Southeast Asian warfare was centred around the use of war elephants. Elephants served as line-breakers, missile platforms, command posts, and were used in the transportation of military supply and heavy artillery. Southeast Asian elephant warfare had several unique elements not found in India and elsewhere, namely the mahout sat on the back of the elephant rather than on the neck, as well as the presence of four specially trained "elephant guards" protecting the legs of the elephant. This unique practise was perhaps geared towards engaging another war elephant as equal, rather than trampling through lesser troops such as infantry.

Burmese infantry usually congregated around war elephants for mutual support and protection. They fought in smaller warbands led by individual leaders, rather than in large regiments.

Poking the sleeping dragon
Ming-Toungoo border conflict was characterised by the Ming's negligence to the threat and reluctance to act preemptively. To the Ming Empire, this border conflict was but a small unrest at the fringe of its territories, generally not worth the effort of a serious military response (especially when it had other, more serious issues to worry about). Thus the problem was allowed to fester unchecked, to the point that Toungoo Empire encroached into Shan States and even some parts of Yunnan.

In 1583, King Nanda Bayin launched a military campaign (an invasion from Ming perspective, a rebel-quelling expedition from Toungoo perspective) against Shan States. He quickly conquered Shidian/Thaungthut and Sanda (盞達, present-day Dehong), and even pushed into Shun Ning (順寧, present-day Fengqing County). The seriousness of the situation shocked the Ming court greatly, finally prompting it to make a military response. A Ming army consisted of several thousand locally-recruited Chinese troops, supplemented by numerous Yunnan and Shan States Tu Si (土司, government-sanctioned hereditary chieftain) auxiliaries—a composition not too dissimilar to Toungoo army—was put together to resist Burmese advance and retake the occupied territories.

While militarily strong, Toungoo Empire enjoyed none of the advantages it successor Konbaung Dynasty had over the Chinese empire. Unlike Konbaung Dynasty: Toungoo Empire was less stable; its firearms weren't any more advanced than what the Chinese had; it had to rely on foreign gunners (during Nanda Bayin's reign there was a shortage of experienced gunners); and the famous Manipuri horsemen had yet to officially join its army. As a result, Toungoo army fared poorly against the more disciplined Ming army, and by the end of 1583, Ming army had push Toungoo army out of all occupied territories.

By early 1584, Ming counterpush reached as deep as Ava (present-day Inwa), former capital of the Ava Kingdom, leading to the surrender and submission of Thado Minsaw, viceroy of Ava. Thado Minsaw would openly rebel against King Nanda Bayin later in the same year, but the rebellion failed and he died en route during his flight to China. However, King Nanda Bayin's campaign to put down Thado Minsaw's rebellion spilled over into Shan States again (and thus perceived by Ming as another invasion), prompting another Ming counterattack. Ming army once again defeated Toungoo army and killed Minkhaung II, half-uncle of Nanda Bayin.

Border tension between Ming and Toungoo de-escalated soon after, as Toungoo Empire was drawn into the disastrous Toungoo-Ayutthaya Wars. The de-escalation offered no consolation to the Ming though, as it soon found itself caught in Imjin War and two massive rebellions as well. Ming also greatly underestimated the tenacity of the Burmese, as Burmese raids into Shan States never ceased even as Toungoo Empire was fracturing from within. In fact, the raids renewed in vigour in the 1600s under King Nyaungyan Min and later his son Anaukpetlun. By that time, Ming had already gone into terminal decline, and was no longer able to resist the advance of the Restored Toungoo Empire.


  1. Nice article!
    I have to admit that my cultural background lacks South-East Asia history but this was really informative! I didn't know that a SE Asian country challenge the Ming!
    How did the Chinese troops defeated war elephants? Hand held fire arms and/or artillery?

    1. SE Asia has a really rich and interesting history, but sadly often overlooked. It was a tough nut to crack too, Vietnamese for example actually defeated Ming fair and square and regained independence.

      During early Ming period Ming troops used handgonnes to defeat war elephants. They should have switched to matchlock guns already during Ming-Toungoo border conflicts, but since Chinese troops in the conflicts were basically recruited on the spot (from Yunnan), I don't known if they had access to matchlock or not.

      Southern Ming loyaltist Li Dingguo apparently defeated a Burmese elephant by chopping off its trunk.

    2. Interestingly, both Ming generals of the Ming-Toungoo border conflicts, Liu Ting and Deng Zilong, were later called to participate in Imjin War (Deng Zilong died in Battle of Noryang, alongside Admiral Yi Sun Sin).

      On the other hand, Japanese mercenaries working for Siamese King Naresuan probabky fought the Burmese too (although the most famous of them, Yamada Nagamasa, did not come to Thailand until much later). The Thais even made several movies about it.

    3. Ming's conflict with Burma would erupt again much later when Yongli the last pretender of Southern Ming fled into Burma with Qing forces in pursuit. Both Ming (under Li Dingguo) and Qing forces would intrude into Burma and cause much destruction. The Burmese would later capture him and hand him over to Wu Sangui. I dont have any details on the battles between Southern Ming vs. Burmese or Qing vs. Burmese. But Mu Tianbao (Mu Ying's heir) while protecting Yong Li, supposedly killed scores of Burmese fighters with a wooden beam.

    4. South East Asia history with China is interesting. As you all know, The Mongol-Chinese Yuan Dynasty invades Vietnam, Burma, and Java several times. And lost most of the time.

    5. @Jayson Ng
      The terrain of SE Asia makes any invasion from the outside and holding territory extremely difficult. For the most part SE Asian defenders could simply hole up until tropical disease kick in, then annihilate the weakened enemy.

      Konbaung Dynasty was particularly adept at this, their wooden fortifications impressed (and later adopted by) even the British.

      IMHO Ming was able to plough through Toungoo force relatively easily because they went in and out of Burma rather quickly, never intended to hold territory.

  2. Thank you for all the additional info! I was aware of Yamada Nagamasa, the Japanese were actually quite active as mercenaries in that period.
    The Vietnamese seems to be tough people! They resisted the Mongols as well if I recall correctly

    1. Indeed they did. IMO Annam had the advantage of a more Sinic culture and thus a more robust government/society. Even at the height of Toungoo Empire I doubt they could really suppress Annam (even though Toungoo was much larger).

  3. SEA military history is something I am interested in, especially their gunpowder weapons and war elephant tactics, but not many English sources are there except for the Vietnam War.



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