Who were the Jurchen? history - Early Central Asia
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Who were the Jurchen?

Jin vase
A pottery vase from the Jin Dynasty,
ca. 1200 AD (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Unlike most of the people living in north Asia, the Jurchen did not speak a Turkic or Altaic language. Their language was not related to the other Asian languages. The Jurchen probably lived north of China, along the Pacific coast, from at least 100 BC or so. Like other north Asian Pacific coast people, they hunted and gathered most of their food, and rode horses in warfare. But just before 1000 AD, the Jurchen people suddenly fell into history and civilization when the expanding Khitan empire defeated the Jurchen and made them part of their empire.

Being in the Khitan empire soon brought the Jurchen into contact with the even more civilized people of China. About a hundred years later, the Sung Dynasty emperors of China hired the Jurchen to fight against the Khitan and break up the Khitan empire. In 1122 AD, the Jurchen - who by now had a khan, Wanyan Aguda - succeeded in doing that, and most of the Khitan left the area and moved further west. But now the Jurchen decided to have their own empire. In 1126 AD, the Jurchen army conquered Korea, and the next year, Jurchen horsemen captured the Sung Dynasty capital of Haifeng. The Jurchen established themselves as the rulers of what is now northern China, calling themselves the Jin Dynasty. Gradually they learned more and more about civilization and Chinese culture. They began to read and write Chinese. They followed the teachings of Confucius.

Jin bowl
A Jin Dynasty bowl (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Then after another hundred years, in 1234 AD, the Sung Dynasty tried again: they hired the Mongols, under Genghis Khan, to conquer the Jin Dynasty and the Jurchen people. The Mongols forced the Jurchen to become part of the Mongol Empire. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Jurchen were independent again for a short time - and then, under the name of the Manchus, they invaded southern China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty, and ruled China as the Qing Dynasty until modern times.

Find out about the Mongols and the Manchu

Bibliography and further reading about the Jurchen:

Main Central Asia page

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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