An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

The Jurchens 女真

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The Jurchens (Chinese: Nüzhen 女真, Nüzhi 女直, Nüzhi 女質 or Lüzhi 慮真, also pronounced Ruzhen) were a federation of non-Chinese tribes living in the northeast of China (modern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang). In the late 11th century they formed a tribal confederation under the tribal leader (qagan) Aguda 阿骨打. With a strong military organisation of all tribes they succeeded to subdue the likewise non-Chinese Khitans that ruled Chinas north. The Jurchens conquered northern China and founded the Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234).
Ethnically and linguistically, the Jurchens belong to the Tungusic branch of the Altaic group, with the Türks and Mongols as distant relatives. The Manchus 滿洲, founders of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911), are their ethnic descendants.
The Jurchens used a script (Nüzhen wenzi 女真文字) designed after the model of the Chinese script (see Jurchen script).
Traditional Chinese historians deducted their origin from the former inhabitants of that region, the Mohe 靺鞨 from the region of the Heishui River 黑水. The federation of the Jurchens also included people from Bohai (the former Sumo Mohe 粟末靺鞨), Khitans and Mongols. When the Khitan ruler Abaoji 阿保機 (Liao Taizu 遼太祖, r. 907-927) destroyed the kingdom of Bohai, the Heishui Mohe submitted to the Khitans and adopted the name of Nüzhen. The designation Nüzhi has been used in order to avoid the personal name of Emperor Xingzong of the Liao 遼興宗 (r. 1031-1054), Yelü Zongzhen 耶律宗真. In the 10th century the Jurchens lived in the area between the Changbai Range 長白山, the Songjiang River 松江 and the Amur River 黑龍江. They lived on fishing and hunting, but also domesticated animals and lived off their fields, at least the Jurchen living in the south. In order to control the Jurchen tribes, Emperor Abaoji transferred several thousand Jurchens to the south to be integrated into the Chinese and Khitan population. These people were called the "matured" Jurchen (shu Nüzhen 熟女真) or hesuguan 曷蘇館 "shield, fence". The other Jurchens, especially those in the far northeast, were called the "raw" Jurchens (sheng Nüzhen 生女真). Historical documents call the various tribes according to their living place, like Southern Jurchens 南女真, Northern Jurchens 北女真, Huanglong fu Jurchens 黃龍府女真, Shunhua guo Jurchens 順化國女真, Changbaishan Jurchens 長白山女真, Binhai Jurchens 濱海女真, Yidian Jurchens 乙典女真, or Aoyan Jurchens 奧衍女真. Song dynasty sources also known the Huiba Jurchens 回拔女真, Donghai Jurchens 東海女真 and Yellow Head Jurchens 黃頭女真.
The Liao court of the Khitans gave all tribesleaders of the Jurchens the title of Great Prince (dawang 大王 or Prince (wang 王), to rule over their people in the name of the Khitans. From the late 10th century on the family Wanyan 完顔 gained control over a large part of the southern Jurchens. The chieftain Suike 綏可 moved his seat to the banks of River Anchuhu 按出虎水 (modern River Ashi 阿什河, Heilongjiang). His descendant Wugunai 烏古廼 imported iron tools and systematically improved the economical base and the social coherence of his tribe. At the beginning of the 12th century, under the chieftain Aguda 阿骨打, the Jurchens had become totally independent from the domination by the Khitans. Aguda unified the tribes and in 1115 proclaimed himself qagan and emperor (as Jin Taizu 金太祖, r. 1115-1122) of the Jin empire 金. Like the Khitans before, he loosely structured his administration according to the Chinese pattern and had created a script to write in Jurchen language. His younger brother Wuqimai 吳乞買 succeeded him as Jin Taizong 金太宗 (r. 1123-1134). He divided the Jurchen tribes into military units, the menggan moke 猛安謀克. Within ten years this military machine destroyed the Liao empire. He was able to destroy the Liao empire and even conquered more territory from the Song empire 宋 (960-1279) than the Khitans had done before. Part of the Jurchens moved into northern China and slowly mixed with the local population. The Mongols later saw the Jurchens as "Northern Chinese" and treated them better than the southern Chinese. Another part stayed in the northeastern homeland and lived on as their ancestors had done before. During the second half of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) the Jurchens again became a strong federation and moved south. The Ming government divided them into the most southern Jianzhou Jurchens 建州女真 (Jurchen also transliterated as Jušen 諸申), the Haixi Jurchens 海西女真, and the "wild" Jurchens (yeren Nüzhen 野人女真). The Jianzhou Jurchens, living in the borderland to the Ming, and economically highly interrelated with the Chinese communities in that region, founded the Later Jin dynasty 後金 under Nurhaci 努爾哈赤 and eventually became the Manchus that conquered China as the Qing dynasty. While the southern Jurchens became the Manchus, the northern Jurchens were called Hejin 黑斤 (or Heje, today called Hezhe 赫哲), Solun 索倫 (today called Ewenke 鄂溫克) and Elunchun 鄂倫春 (or Orocen).

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