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The Jurchens (Chinese: 女真, pinyin: nǚzhēn) were a Tungusic people who inhabited parts of Manchuria and northern Korea until the seventeenth century, when they became the Manchus. They established the Jin Dynasty (aisin gurun in Jurchen/Manchu) between 1115 and 1122.
The name Jurchen dates back to at least the beginning of the tenth century. It comes from the Jurchen word jusen, the original meaning of which is unclear. The Jurchen tribes of northern Manchuria were originally vassals of the Khitans (see also Liao Dynasty). They rose to power after an outstanding leader unified them in 1115, declared himself emperor, and quickly seized the Supreme Capital of Liao. The Jurchens overran most of North China and captured the Song capital of Kaifeng in 1126. Their armies pushed all the way south to the Yangtze but the boundary with the Southern Song was eventually stabilised roughly along the Huai River.
The Jurchen named their dynasty the Jin ("Golden") after a river in their homeland — For more detailed treatment of dynastic history and administration, see Jin Dynasty. At first, the Jurchen tribesmen were kept in readiness for warfare but decades of settled lifestyle eroded their pastoral identity. Eventually intermarriage with Chinese was permitted and peace with the Southern Song confirmed. The Jin rulers themselves came to follow Confucian norms. After 1189, the Jin became involved on two fronts in exhausting wars with the Mongols and the Southern song. By 1215, under Mongol pressure, they were forced to move their capital south from Beijing to Kaifeng, where the Mongols extinguished the Jin dynasty in 1234.
Culture, language and society
The Jurchens generally lived by traditions that reflected the pastoral culture of early steppe peoples. Like the Khitans and Mongols, they took pride in feats of strength, horsemanship, archery and hunting. They engaged in shamanic cults and believed in a supreme sky god (abka-i enduri, abka-i han).
The early Jurchen script was based on the Khitan script, which in turn was inspired by Chinese characters. However, because Chinese is an isolating language and the Jurchen and Khitan languages are agglutinative, the script proved to be cumbersome. The written Jurchen language died out soon after the fall of the Jin Dynasty though its spoken form survived. Until the end of the sixteenth century, when Manchu became the new literary language, the Jurchens used a combination of Mongolian and Chinese.
The cultural conceptualisation of Jurchen society owes a great deal to the Mongols. Both Mongols and Jurchens used the title han for the leaders of a political entity, whether "emperor" or "chief". A particularly powerful chief was called beile ("prince, nobleman"), corresponding with the Mongolian beki and Turkish beg or bey. Also like the Mongols and the Turks, the Jurchens did not observe a law of primogeniture. According to tradition, any capable son or nephew could be chosen to become leader.
During Ming times the Jurchen people lived in social units that were sub-clans (mukun or hala mukun) of ancient clans (hala). Members of Jurchen clans shared a consciousness of a common ancestor and were led by a head man (mukunda). Not all clan members were blood related and division and integration of different clans was common. Jurchen households (boo) lived as families (booigon), consisting of five to seven blood-related family members and a number of slaves. Households formed squads (tatan) to engage in tasks related to hunting and food gathering; and formed companies (niru) for larger activities, such as war.
Jurchens during the Ming
Chinese chroniclers of the Ming Dynasty distinguished three groups of Jurchens: the Wild Jurchens of northernmost Manchuria, the Haixi Jurchens of modern Heilongjiang and the Jianzhou Jurchens of modern Jilin province. They led a pastoral-agrarian lifestyle, hunting, fishing and engaging in limited agriculture. In 1388, the Hongwu Emperor dispatched a mission to establish contact with the tribes of Odoli, Huligai and T'owen, beginning the sinicisation of the Jurchen people.
The Yongle Emperor found allies among the various Jurchen tribes against the Mongols. He bestowed titles and surnames to various Jurchen chiefs and expected them to send periodic tribute. Chinese commanderies were established over tribal military units under their own hereditary tribal leaders. In the Yongle period alone 178 commanderies were set up in Manchuria, an index of the Chinese divide-and-rule tactics. Later on, horse markets were also established in the northern border towns of Liaodong for trade. The increasing sinification of the Jurchens ultimately gave them the organisation structures to extend their power beyond the steppe. Later, a Korean army led by Yi-Il ,and Yi sun shin would expell them from Korea.
Over a period of thirty years from 1586, Nurhaci, a chieftain of the Jianzhou Jurchens, united the three Jurchen tribes, and renamed the united tribe Manchu. He created a formidable synthesis of nomadic institutions, providing the basis of the Manchu state and later the conquest of China by the Qing dynasty.
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