The people who later called themselves Manchus were Jurchen nomads descended from the Jurchens who founded the Jin (Chin) dynasty that ruled northern China between 1115 and 1234. Early in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the Jurchens lived in southern Manchuria amid agricultural Han Chinese.
The Ming government divided the region into three commanderies (provinces), encouraged agriculture among all the population, and held the tribal chief of the non-Han people accountable to the commanders appointed by the court.
The Ming government also fixed tribal territories and controlled the succession of the chiefs, who rendered tribute at court at regulated intervals. As Ming power weakened in the late 16th century, so did its control over the tribes, enabling the Jurchens to consolidate into a tribal-feudal state.
Nurhaci was a minor tribal chief in the Jianzhou (Chienchow) commandery. He knew Chinese and traveled to Beijing (Peking) on tribute missions. Early in his career he waged war against and defeated other Jurchen chiefs expanding his power.
In 1599, he had a new alphabet created for writing Jurchen (the Jin had created a writing system that died with the dynasty). In 1601, he created a “banner system” for organizing his military, loosely based on the Ming frontier military system called the wei, which militarized the Jurchens into a war machine.
All Jurchen men were grouped into eight banners, which Nurhaci, his relatives, and allies commanded. The banners also functioned as rudimentary administrative units that controlled taxation, conscription, and mobilization. Its members farmed in peacetime, and its men were called up to arms when needed.
With success in war, conquered lands were granted to the banners and the original cultivators became serfs to the banners; however the land allotments were not granted in cohesive units to prevent regionalism. Thus the banner system also became the nucleus of a bureaucratic state. Because the captives became bondservants and serfs, bannermen were able to focus on military duties.
In 1616, Nurhaci announced the creation of a state called the Later Jin, proclaimed himself its “heaven-designated emperor,” and renounced allegiance to the Ming.
He was successful in capturing important cities in Manchuria, including Liaoyang and Shenyang (Mukden), where he established his capital and welcomed defecting and captured Ming officials to join his government. Nurhaci was wounded in an unsuccessful battle against the Ming in 1626 and died as a result later that year.
Nurhaci was a talented leader who transformed his tribal people and organized them into a frontier state, in part by adopting Chinese techniques and methods of administration. He capitalized on the problems of a weakening Ming dynasty to build the foundations that would enable his descendants to rule all China.