The Eight Banners (In Manchu: jakūn gūsa, Chinese: 八旗; pinyin: bāqí) were administrative/military divisions under the Qing dynasty into which all Manchu households were placed. In war, the Eight Banners functioned as armies, but the banner system was also the basic organizational framework of all of Manchu society. Created in the early 17th century by Nurhaci, the banner armies would play an instrumental role in his unification of the fragmented Jurchen people (who would later be renamed to the Manchus under Nurhaci's son Hong Taiji) and in the Qing dynasty's conquest of the Ming dynasty. As Mongol and Han Chinese forces were incorporated into the growing Qing military establishment, the Mongol Eight Banners and Chinese Eight Banners were created alongside the original Manchu banners. The banner armies were considered the elite forces of the Qing military, while the remainder of imperial troops were incorporated into the vast Green Standard Army. Membership in the banners was hereditary, and bannermen were granted land and income. After the defeat of the Ming dynasty, Qing emperors continued to rely on the Eight Banners in their subsequent military campaigns. After the Ten Great Campaigns of the Qianlong Emperor, the quality of banner troops gradually decreased, and by the 19th century the task of defending the empire had largely fallen upon regional warlord armies such as the Xiang Army. Over time, the Eight Banners became synonymous with Manchu identity even as their military strength totally vanished.
Initially, Nurhaci's forces were organized into small hunting parties of about a dozen men related by blood, marriage, clan, or place of residence, as was the typical Jurchen custom. In 1601, with the number of men under his command growing, Nurhaci reorganized his troops into companies of 300 households. Five companies made up a battalion, and ten battalions a banner. Four banners were originally created: Yellow, White, Red, and Blue, each named after the color of its flag. By 1614, the number of companies had grown to around 400. In 1615, the number of banners was doubled through the creation of "bordered" banners. The troops of each of the original four banners would be split between a plain and a bordered banner. The bordered variant of each flag was to have a red border, except for the Bordered Red Banner, which had a white border instead.
The banner armies expanded rapidly after a string of military victories under Nurhaci and his successors. Beginning in the late 1620s, the Jurchens incorporated allied and conquered Mongol tribes into the Eight Banner system. In 1635, Hong Taiji, son of Nurhaci, renamed his people from the Jurchens to the Manchus. That same year the Mongols were separated into the Mongol Eight Banners (Manchu: monggo gūsa; Chinese: 八旗蒙古; pinyin: bāqí ménggǔ).
Invasions of Korea
Under Hong Taiji, the banner armies participated in two invasions of Korea's Joseon dynasty, first in 1627 and again in 1636. As a consequence, Korea was forced to end its former relationship with the Ming dynasty and become a Qing tributary instead.
Conquest of the Ming
Initially, Chinese troops were incorporated into the existing Manchu Banners. When Hong Taiji captured Yongping in 1629, a contingent of artillerymen surrendered to him. In 1631, these troops were organized into the so-called Old Han Army under the Chinese commander Tong Yangxing. These artillery units were used decisively to defeat Ming general Zu Dashou's forces at the siege of Dalinghe that same year. In 1636, Hong Taiji proclaimed the creation of the Qing dynasty.
Between 1637 and 1642, the Old Han Army, mostly made up of Liaodong natives who had surrendered at Yongping, Fushun, Dalinghe, etc., were organized into the Chinese Eight Banners (Manchu: ujen cooha; Chinese: 八旗汉军; pinyin: bāqí hànjūn). The original Eight Banners were thereafter referred to as the Manchu Eight Banners (Manchu: manju gūsa; Chinese: 八旗满洲; pinyin: bāqí mǎnzhōu). Although still called the "Eight Banners" in name, there were now effectively twenty-four banner armies, eight for each of the three main ethnic groups.
After Hong Taiji's death, Dorgon, commander of the Solid White Banner, became regent. He quickly purged his rivals and took control over Hong Taiji's Solid Blue Banner. By 1644, an estimated two million people were living in the Eight Banners system. That year, the Chinese rebel Li Zicheng captured Beijing and the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide. Dorgon and his bannermen joined forces with Ming defector Wu Sangui to defeat Li at the Battle of Shanhai Pass and secure Beijing for the Qing. The young Shunzhi Emperor was then enthroned in the Forbidden City.
Ming defectors played a massive role in the Qing conquest of China. Han Chinese generals who defected to the Manchus were often given women from the Imperial Aisin Gioro family in marriage while the ordinary soldiers who defected were given non-royal Manchu women as wives. The Qing differentiated between Han bannermen and ordinary Han civilians. Han bannermen were made out of Han Chinese who defected to the Qing up to 1644 and joined the Eight Banners, giving them social and legal privileges in addition to being acculturated to Manchu culture. So many Han defected to the Qing and swelled up the ranks of the Eight Banners that ethnic Manchus became a minority within the Banners, making up only 16% in 1648, with Han bannermen dominating at 75%. It was this multi-ethnic force in which Manchus were only a minority, which conquered China for the Qing.
Under the emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, the Eight Banners participated in a series of military campaigns to subdue Ming loyalists and neighboring states. In the Qianlong Emperor's celebrated Ten Great Campaigns, the banner armies fought alongside troops of the Green Standard Army, expanding the Qing empire to its greatest territorial extent. Though partly successful, the campaigns were a heavy financial burden on the Qing treasury, and exposed weaknesses in the Qing military. Many bannermen lost their lives in the Burma campaign, often as the result of tropical diseases, to which they had little resistance.
Although the banners were instrumental in the Qing Empire takeover of China proper in the 17th century from the Ming Empire, they began to fall behind rising Western powers in the 18th century. By the 1730s, the traditional martial spirit had been discarded, as the well-paid Bannerman spent their time gambling and theatergoing. Subsidizing the 1.5 million men women and children in the system was an expensive proposition, compounded by embezzlement and corruption.
In the 19th century, the Eight Banners and Green Standard troops proved unable to put down the Taiping Rebellion and Nien Rebellion on their own. Regional officials like Zeng Guofan were instructed to raise their own forces from the civilian population, leading to the creation of the Xiang Army and the Huai Army, among others. Along with the Ever Victorious Army of Frederick Townsend Ward, it was these warlord armies (known as yongying) who finally succeeded in restoring Qing control in this turbulent period.
John Ross, a Scots missionary who served in Manchuria in the 19th century, wrote of the bannermen, "Their claim to be military men is based on their descent rather than on their skill in arms; and their pay is given them because of their fathers' prowess, and not at all from any hopes of their efficiency as soldiers. Their soldierly qualities are included in the accomplishments of idleness, riding, and the use of the bow and arrow, at which they practice on a few rare occasions each year."
During the Boxer Rebellion, 1899–1901, 10,000 Bannermen were recruited from the Metropolitan Banners and given modernized training and weapons. One of these was the Hushenying. Many Manchu Bannermen in Beijing supported the Boxers and shared their anti-foreign sentiment. The Manchu Bannermen were devastated by the fighting during the Boxer Rebellion, with massive casualties sustained during the war and subsequently being driven into desperate poverty.
By the late 19th century, the Qing Dynasty began training and creating New Army units based on Western training, equipment and organization. Nevertheless, the banner system remained in existence until the fall of the Qing in 1911, and even beyond, with a rump organization continuing to function until the expulsion of Puyi (the former Xuantong emperor) from the Forbidden City in 1924.
At the end of the Qing dynasty, all members of the Eight Banners, regardless of their original ethnicity, were considered by the Republic of China to be Manchu.
At the highest level, the eight banners were categorized according to two groupings. The three "upper" banners (both Yellow Banners and the Plain White Banner) were under the nominal command of the emperor himself, whereas the five "lower" banners were commanded by others. The banners were also split into a "left wing" and a "right wing" according to how they would be arrayed in battle. In Beijing, the left wing occupied the eastern banner neighborhoods and the right wing occupied the western ones.
The smallest unit in a banner army was the company, or niru (Chinese: 佐領; pinyin: zuǒlǐng), composed nominally of 300 soldiers and their families. The term niru means "arrow" in the Manchu language, and was originally the Manchu name for a hunting party, which would be armed with bows and arrows. 15 companies (4,500 men) made up one jalan (Chinese: 參領; pinyin: cānlǐng). 4 jalan constituted a gūsa (banner), with a total of 60 companies, or 18,000 men. The actual sizes often varied substantially from these standards.
|Plain Yellow Banner||ᡤᡠᠯᡠ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ gulu suwayan gūsa
|Шулуун Шар Хошуу||正黃旗 zhèng huáng qí||Right||Upper|
|Bordered Yellow Banner||
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ kubuhe suwayan gūsa
|Хөвөөт Шар Хошуу||鑲黃旗 xiāng huáng qí||Left||Upper|
|Plain White Banner||ᡤᡠᠯᡠ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ gulu šanggiyan gūsa
|Шулуун Цагаан Хошуу||正白旗 zhèng bái qí||Left||Upper|
|Bordered White Banner||ᡴᡠᠪᡠᡥᡝ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ kubuhe šanggiyan gūsa
|Хөвөөт Цагаан Хошуу||鑲白旗 xiāng bái qí||Left||Lower|
|Plain Red Banner||ᡤᡠᠯᡠ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ gulu fulgiyan gūsa
|Шулуун Улаан Хошуу||正紅旗 zhèng hóng qí||Right||Lower|
|Bordered Red Banner||ᡴᡠᠪᡠᡥᡝ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ kubuhe fulgiyan gūsa
|Хөвөөт Улаан Хошуу||鑲紅旗 xiāng hóng qí||Right||Lower|
|Plain Blue Banner||ᡤᡠᠯᡠ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ gulu lamun gūsa
|Шулуун Хөх Хошуу||正藍旗 zhèng lán qí||Left||Lower|
|Bordered Blue Banner||ᡴᡠᠪᡠᡥᡝ
ᡤᡡᠰᠠ kubuhe lamun gūsa
|Хөвөөт Хөх Хошуу||鑲藍旗 xiāng lán qí||Right||Lower|
Initially, the banner armies were primarily made up of individuals from the various Manchu tribes. As new populations were incorporated into the empire, the armies were expanded to accommodate troops of different ethnicities. The banner armies would eventually encompass three principal ethnic components: the Manchus, the Han, and the Mongols, and various smaller ethnic groups, such as the Xibe, the Daur, and the Evenks.
The transfer of families from Han Banners or Bondservant status (booi) to Manchu Banners, switching their ethnicity from Han to Manchu was called 抬旗 in Chinese. They would be transferred to the "upper three" Manchu Banners. It was a policy of the Qing to transfer to immediate families (the brothers, father) of the mother of an Emperor into the upper three Manchu Banners and Manchufying their last name by adding "giya" 佳 at the end as a suffix. It typically occurred in cases of intermarriage with the Qing Aisin Gioro Imperial family, and the close relatives (fathers and brothers) of the concubine or Empress would get promoted from the Han Banner to the Manchu Banner and become Manchu. The Han Bannerwoman Empress Xiaoyichun and her entire family were transferred to the Manchu Banners due to her status as the mother of an Emperor and their surname was change from Wei 魏 to Weigiya 魏佳.
From the time China was brought under the rule of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1683), the banner soldiers became more professional and bureaucratized. Once the Manchus took over governing, they could no longer satisfy the material needs of soldiers by garnishing and distributing booty; instead, a salary system was instituted, ranks standardized, and the Eight Banners became a sort of hereditary military caste, though with a strong ethnic inflection. Banner soldiers took up permanent positions, either as defenders of the capital, Beijing, where roughly half of them lived with their families, or in the provinces, where some eighteen garrisons were established. The largest banner garrisons throughout most of the Qing dynasty were at Beijing, followed by Xi'an and Hangzhou. Sizable banner populations were also placed in Manchuria and at strategic points along the Great Wall, the Yangtze River and Grand Canal.
- Agui - participated in the Sino-Burmese War and the suppression of the Jinchuan hill peoples. Member of the Plain Blue Banner.
- Fuheng - commander in the Sino-Burmese War. Member of the Bordered Yellow Banner.
- Fuk'anggan - commander in the Sino-Nepalese War. Member of the Bordered Yellow Banner.
- Geng Zhongming - Ming dynasty warlord. Inducted into the Chinese Plain Yellow Banner after submitting to Qing.
- Li Yongfang - Ming dynasty frontier commander. Inducted into the Chinese Plain Blue Banner after surrendering to Qing.
- Zheng Keshuang - grandson of Koxinga. Inducted into the Chinese Plain Red Banner after surrendering to Qing.
- Zhu Zhiliang - a descendant of the Ming dynasty Imperial Family. Granted the title Marquis of Extended Grace and inducted into the Chinese Plain White Banner.
- Zu Dashou - Ming dynasty frontier commander. Inducted into the Chinese Plain Yellow Banner after surrendering to Qing.
- Wakeman 1986, pp. 53–54.
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- Elliott 2001, p. 59.
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This article incorporates text from The Manchus: or The reigning dynasty of China; their rise and progress, by John Ross, a publication from 1880 now in the public domain in the United States.
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