The Jurchen (also known as the Jin) were the semi-nomadic people who had taken over the north of China. In 946, the Khitan people of Manchuria had established the Liao Empire, which included their own Manchurian lands and also many prefectures around Beijing, which they took as their Southern capital. They also had eastern, western, northern and central capital cities.
The Jurchen were a very martial people but their new access to the consumer goods of China and the Buddhist philosophy were influential in reducing their fighting spirit. The Liao ruled over the Chinese but were much fewer in number than them and they took care not to become too sinicised by keeping their own systems of rule. In 1115, the Jurchen people of Manchuria were able to rebel from Liao and establish their own kingdom.
The Chinese court recognised the power of the Jurchen and joined an alliance to drive out the Liao, which they successfully achieved. However, once the Liao were defeated, the Jurchen turned on the Chinese and overran the whole of northern China to make their own empire. They conquered the northern capital city of Kaifeng and seized the imperial family. The Chinese moved south to establish the Southern Song Dynasty with a new capital at Lin’an (now known as Hangzhou).
The Jurchen regime became ever more closely similar to the Chinese system that it had conquered. Like the Khitans before them, the Jurchen were in the minority in the country they governed and they lacked sufficient numbers of skilled administrators and managers to control a very sophisticated economy. The Jurchens may have been proud and powerful warriors with their own clothing styles, food and language, but few of them were able to understand how to keep the canals working or the taxes collected with any measure of fairness.
As the Mongols began to unify under Genghis Khan, they sought to push into Jurchen territory and eventually to conquer it. Mongols allied with Chinese for this purpose and the Jurchens were squeezed between the two and destroyed. This was a lengthy undertaking. The Mongols first attacked Jurchen in 1211, when the capital was moved from Beijing to Kaifeng. However, Beijing was not captured until 1215 and 1232 when Kaifeng was captured by joint Mongol and Song armies.
In 1250, therefore, northern China was a dangerous and difficult place to live. Constant warfare meant that peasant classes were often exploited to provide food and shelter to troops that they could scarcely spare. Merchants would have been squeezed by mandarins for the same purpose and there was widespread destruction, disease and death. Warlords emerged in remote areas to carve out their own fiefs and ruled as dictators. Other areas suffered from anarchy. Still, as the Chinese characters used to make up the word ‘crisis’ tell us, difficult times offer both threats and opportunities for those bold enough to seize them.