The Jurchen tribes had a strong influence on Chinese history. Source: Tan Kian Khoon / Adobe Stock.

How the Jurchen Tribes Conquered China


Jurchens (known also as the Nuzhen, 女真, in Chinese) were a federation of non-Chinese peoples who inhabited the northeastern part of China (known also as Manchuria), which corresponds to the modern Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang. They are members of the Manchu-Tungus ethnolinguistic family, which includes the Manchus, who are their descendants.

The Jurchens had a huge impact on Chinese history, as they established the Jin dynasty (金朝 in Chinese), considered to be the second great ‘barbarian’ dynasty of northern China. While the territorial extent of the Jin dynasty did not include the southern part of China, their descendants, the Manchus, succeeded in conquering the whole country.

The Jurchen Language

From an ethnolinguistic point of view, the Jurchens belong to the Manchu-Tungus (known also as Tungusic) family, the smallest of the three subfamilies of the Altaic language family. The Manchu-Tungus languages are distant relatives of the Turkic and Mongolic languages, the other two members of the Altaic language family.

There are between 10 and 17 Manchu-Tungus languages, which, at present, are spoken by less than 70,000 people in the world. Speakers of these languages are not limited to northeastern China, the homeland of the Jurchens, but also across Mongolia, as well as the northern boundary of Russia.

The oldest attested member of the Manchu-Tungus family is Jurchen. Unfortunately, little is known about this language, as it is now extinct. In addition, only few examples of the Jurchen script have survived to this day. From these examples, which are found on inscribed stelae in northeastern China and Korea, it has been deduced that the Jurchen script was borrowed from the Khitan one.

The Khitans were a nomadic people who ruled over northern China as the Liao dynasty (辽朝 in Chinese), which the Jurchen overthrew. Since the Jurchens replaced the Khitans in northern China, it is not entirely surprising that they adopted their writing system as well.

Map of the Liao dynasty which the Jurchen overthrew. (Sven Manguard / CC BY-SA 3.0).

Map of the Liao dynasty which the Jurchen overthrew. (Sven Manguard / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Khitans altered their writing system to resemble the Chinese script more closely, which is also visible in the Jurchen script. It is possible that the Jurchens did not have a writing system prior to that, since apart from Jurchen and Manchu, the other Manchu-Tungus languages are not written.

History of the Jurchens

Compared to the history of and development of the Jurchen language, there is more information available regarding the history of the Jurchens. The earliest reference to the Jurchens dates to 10 th century, when Balhae, a kingdom based in the modern province of Heilongjiang, was conquered by Abaoji (known posthumously as Emperor Taizu), a Khitan leader and the founder of the Liao dynasty . The Heishui Mohe (黑水靺鞨 in Chinese) submitted to Abaoji and adopted the name Nuzhen.

According to Chinese historiography, the Heishui Mohe were the descendants of the Sushen and Yilou (肅慎 and 挹婁 respectively in Chinese), whose history may be traced all the way back to the Han dynasty. According to tradition, the Jurchen changed their name to Nuzhi when Yelu Zongzhen became Emperor Xingzong in 1031, so as to avoid the emperor’s personal name (as part of Chinese naming taboo).

Abaoji was aware that although the Jurchen had submitted to him, it was entirely possible that they could one day revolt against the Liao dynasty. Therefore, in order to control them, he transferred thousands of Jurchens to the south. These Jurchens, who integrated into the Chinese and Khitan populations, became known as the ‘matured Jurchens’ (熟女真 in Chinese).

The Jurchens who remained in the north, on the other hand, became known as the ‘raw Jurchens’ (生女真 in Chinese). The Liao emperors allowed the tribe leaders of the Jurchens to rule over their own people on their behalf and bestowed on them the title Great Prince or Prince (大王 and 王 respectively in Chinese).

The Wanyan Clan Strengthens the Jurchens Tribes

By the late 10 th century, the Wanyan clan emerged as the leading tribe among the Jurchens. In the next century or so, the Wanyan clan strengthen their position, improving the economic base and social cohesion of the Jurchen tribes. By the early 12th century, the Jurchens were ready to overthrow their Khitan overlords and establish their own dynasty.

In 1113, the leader of the Wanyan clan, Wanyan Aguda, succeeded in uniting the Jurchen tribes. In the following year, he declared war on the Liao dynasty. In 1115, the Jurchens established an alliance with the Song dynasty, who were also the enemies of the Liao.

In that same year, Wanyan Aguda declared himself emperor, thereby establishing the Jin dynasty. The war with the Khitans ended in 1125, when the last Liao emperor, Emperor Tianzuo, was captured.

Soon after the destruction of the Liao dynasty, the Jurchens quickly turned against their Song allies. They continued their military campaign southwards and invaded the territory of the Song dynasty. In December 1126, the Jurchens were at the gates of Kaifeng, the Song capital.

In January the following year, the city had fallen, and the Jurchens captured Emperor Qinzong, and his father, retired Emperor Huizong. The two men were brought back to the Jurchen heartland as prisoners. This humiliating event, known as the Jingkang Incident, however, was not the end of the Song dynasty.

Emperor Huizong of Song was captured by the Jurchen. (Ismoon / Public Domain)

Emperor Huizong of Song was captured by the Jurchen. (Ismoon / Public Domain )

The Song court managed to flee to the south, and Zhao Gou, a younger half-brother of Emperor Qinzong, was proclaimed Emperor Gaozong, the first emperor of the Southern Song dynasty. The Jurchens and the Song continued their war for the next decade and a half.

Finally, a peace treaty was signed between the two sides in 1142. The boundary between the Jin and Southern Song Dynasties (roughly along the Huai River) was established, and the Song were forced to pay tribute to the Jurchens.

Jurchen Culture

Having conquered northern China, the Jurchens began adopting Chinese customs and culture (a process known as sinicization). A Chinese-style bureaucracy, for instance, was adopted for the administration of the Jurchen’s Chinese subjects, who lived in the southern part of their empire. At the same time, however, there were concerns that a complete adoption of the Chinese lifestyle would erode their ethnic identity and destroy their traditional values.

Therefore, the Jurchen language and script continued to be used, while Chinese clothing and customs were banned from their armies. Although the Jurchen gradually lost their fierce warrior ways, they were still a capable military force. For example, the Song declared war on the Jurchens in 1206, with the hopes of regaining lost territory.

The Jurchens succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Song and launched a counter-attack. They were, however, unable to seize territory from the Song either. Eventually, a peace treaty was negotiated in 1208, and the Song were forced to pay a heavier annual tribute.

Other Threats to the Jurchen

The Southern Song dynasty, however, was not the only threat to the Jin dynasty. To the north, the Mongols were on the rise. In 1206, Genghis Khan united the nomadic Mongol-Turkic tribes, thereby establishing the Mongol Empire. In 1211, he declared war on the Jin dynasty.

The Jurchens lost much territory to the Mongols, including their capital, Zhongdu (today the Xicheng District of Beijing). Therefore, in 1215, the Jurchens moved their capital to Kaifeng.

The Mongols were a threat to the Jurchen. (Yaan / Public Domain)

The Mongols were a threat to the Jurchen. (Yaan / Public Domain )

At the same time, in an attempt to compensate for their lost territories, the Jurchens launched campaigns against the Song. Not only did the campaigns fail to achieve their goals, but they also further antagonized the Song.

In 1233, Kaifeng fell to the Mongols after a siege, and the Jin ruler, Emperor Aizong, fled to Caizhou. In desperation, the Jurchens sought the aid of the Song, warning that once the Mongols had conquered them, they would attack the Song next. Given the poor relations between the two sides, the Song naturally refused to help the Jurchens and formed an alliance with the Mongols instead.

In 1234, the Mongols and Song launched a joint assault on Caizhou. The Jurchens were defeated, thus bringing an end to the Jin dynasty. True enough, the Song became the next targets of the Mongols. The alliance between the Mongols and the Song broke down soon after the destruction of the Jin dynasty, and the Southern Song dynasty was eventually conquered by their former allies in 1279.

The fall of the Jin dynasty did not mean the end of the Jurchens. Instead, they continued to exist in China. Chinese chroniclers of the Ming dynasty (which succeeded the Mongol Yuan dynasty), for instance, record that there were three distinct groups of Jurchens – the Wild Jurchens (野人女真 in Chinese), the Haixi Jurchens (海西女真 in Chinese), and the Jianzhou Jurchens (建洲女真 in Chinese).

The Wild Jurchens inhabited the northernmost corner of Manchuria, the Haixi Jurchens the modern province of Heilongjiang, and the Jianzhou Jurchens the modern province of Jilin. While the Wild Jurchens were nomads, the other two groups had adopted some form of a sedentary lifestyle, and were engaged in hunting, fishing, and limited agricultural activities.

A Jurchen man hunting from his horse, 15th century painting on silk. (Andres rojas22~commonswiki / Public Domain)

A Jurchen man hunting from his horse, 15 th century painting on silk. (Andres rojas22~commonswiki / Public Domain )

The Ming emperors were keen to make contact with the Jurchens. Although the Yuan dynasty had been defeated, the surviving Mongols retreated to Mongolia, where they established the Northern Yuan dynasty. In order to deal with this threat, diplomatic missions were sent to the Jurchens tribes, many of whom became allies of the Ming against the Mongols.

In addition, horse markets were set up to facilitate trade between the Ming and the Jurchens. Iron farming tools, farm cattle, seeds, rice, salt, and textiles from the Chinese were exchanged for horses, fur, ginseng, and other special local products. Contact with the Ming resulted in the sinicization of the Jurchen. It has been claimed that as a result of the sinicization, the Jurchens acquired the organizational structure that enabled them to conquer China.

The Jurchen Influence on Future Dynasties of China

The last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing dynasty was established by the Manchus, the descendants of the Jurchens. The connection between the Manchus and the Jurchens is evident in the name initially chosen by the former for their dynasty. The Manchurian name of the state was ‘Aisin Gurun’, which translates as ‘Golden State’.

This is the same as the Chinese ‘Jin’, and the dynasty is known also as the Later Jin dynasty (后金 in Chinese). This is a clear indication that the Manchus saw themselves as the successors of the Jin dynasty. The founder of the Later Jin dynasty was Nurhaci, a chieftain of the Jianzhou Jurchen.

In 1583, Nurhaci began his quest to unify the Jurchen tribes. Initially, the Ming did not seem to bother themselves too much with what Nurhaci was doing. In fact, they even granted him positions and titles.

Nurhaci unified the Jurchen tribes. (Qingprof / Public Domain)

Nurhaci unified the Jurchen tribes. (Qingprof / Public Domain )

In 1582, he was appointed as a garrison commander, while in 1589, he was made public procurator of Heilongjiang. In 1595, Nurhaci was awarded the title ‘Dragon-Tiger General’ by the Ming court. For his part, Nurhaci paid tribute to the Ming, and went himself to Beijing at the head of tribute missions on several occasions.

In 1608, Nurhaci stopped paying tribute to the Ming, as he felt that the Jurchens were now strong enough to do so. Eight years later, Nurhaci finally accomplished his quest of uniting the Jurchen tribes, declared himself ‘khan’, and founded the Later Jin dynasty. In 1618, Nurhaci commissioned the ‘Seven Great Vexations’, a document that expressed seven grievances against the Ming.

The document was in fact an excuse for Nurhaci to rebel and his declaration of war against the Ming. In the years that followed, Nurhaci expanded his territories at the expense of the Ming. In 1626, however, Nurhaci suffered the first serious military defeat of his life, being overpowered by Yuan Chonghuan, a Ming general, at Ningyuan.

Nurhaci watching his army storm the walls of Ningyuan. (Walter Grassroot / Public Domain)

Nurhaci watching his army storm the walls of Ningyuan. (Walter Grassroot / Public Domain )

Nurhaci was wounded by a Portuguese cannon and died two days later. The war against the Ming was continued by his successor, Hong Taiji. In 1635, Hong Taiji changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu.

In the following year, he established the Qing dynasty. Beijing fell to the Qing in 1644, several months after Hong Taiji’s death. The Qing dynasty ruled China until 1911.

Although the Jurchens no longer exist today as an ethnic group, their descendants still do. The Manchus, as mentioned earlier, are the descendants of the Jianzhou Jurchens.

Other descendants of the Jurchens include the Hezhe, the Ewenke, and the Elunchun. Although the Jurchens are not very well-known today, they had a significant impact on the history of China, as two dynasties, the Jin and the Qing Dynasties, were established by them.

Top image: The Jurchen tribes had a strong influence on Chinese history. Source: Tan Kian Khoon / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren

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