An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

baqi 八旗, the Eight Banners

Oct 31, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The Eight Banners (baqi 八旗, Manchu jakūn gūsa, 旗 is occasionally written 旂) were the military and social structure of the people of the Manchus 滿洲 after the foundation of their empire, the (Later) Jin dynasty 後金 (1616-1636). It remained valid through the whole Qing period 清 (1644-1911) was was only abolished after the demise of the Qing empire in 1912.

The origin of the Banners can be traced back to the hunting groups of the people of the Jurchen 女真 that used to group larger family units for joint hunting. These structured hunting groups called niru (Chinese transcription niulu 牛錄, literally "arrow") were commanded by a designated leader (niru-i ejen, Chinese niulu ezhen 牛錄額真) and could also be used in case of military engagements. In 1583, the Jurchen leader Nurhaci (Chinese transcription Nu'erhachi 努邇哈赤) began his war against the garrisons of the Ming empire 明 (1368-1644) in the region of Liaodong 遼東, and at the same time managed to defeat other tribesleaders of the Jurchen. He gradually assembled such a large manpower under his sword that he decided in 1591 to organise all warriors in divisions that were to be marked by banners with different colours. These were the first four banner units, in yellow, white, red, and blue.

In 1615, he created four new divisions, their banners having the same colours, but in addition a decoration around the border of the flags. The former Banners were called the "Plain Banners (zhengqi 正旗), while the new Banners were called "Bordered Banners" (xiangqi 鑲旗, sometimes simplified to 廂旗). The fighting forces of the Jurchens were now grouped into the Plain Yellow Banner (zhenghuangqi 正黃旗), Bordered Yellow Banner (xianghuangqi 鑲黃旗), Plain White Banner (zhengbaiqi 正白旗), Bordered White Banner (xiangbaiqi 鑲白旗), and so on. The borders of the banners were red, and that of the red banner was white.

Nurhaci organised the whole population into Banners, with Banner households and families. 300 men built one company (niru), headed by a company commander (niru ejen). Five companies made out one regiment (jalan, Chinese transcription jiala 甲喇), headed by a regimental commander (jalan ejen). Five brigades were grouped into one Banner (gūsa, Chinese transcription gushan 固山), headed by a Banner commander (gūsa ejen, from 1660 on translated as Commander-in-chief dutong 都統, and reverted into Manchu as janggin "Banner general" [Chinese rendering zhangjing 章京], from Chinese jiangjun 將軍 "general". The transliteration jiyanggiyūn has more a basic meaning of "general").

Banner commanders were assisted by Banner vice-commanders (meiren ejen Chinese transcription meile ejen 梅勒額真 or meiling ejen 美淩額真, from 1660 on translated as fudutong 副都統 and reverted into Manchu as meiren-i janggin). It is estimated that during that time there were 308 Manchu companies among the Banners, 76 Mongol companies, as well as 16 Chinese companies. The Mongol companies consisted of Mongol tribes that had submitted to Nurhaci, and the Chinese companies of Chinese subjects living in the region conquered by Nurhaci, or defectors of the Ming military. Because the size of the companies was not consistently adhered to, it is barely possible to estimate the size of the Banner army at that time.

From 1629 on the Mongol subjects of Nurhaci became so many that separate Mongol Banners (Monggo gūsa) were created, numbering eight, with the same structure as those of the original Banners. A Chinese Banner was in existence since 1631 or 1633. In 1637, a second Chinese Banner was created, in 1639 four, and in 1642 there were eight Chinese Banners (hanjun baqi 漢軍八旗, ujen cooha gūsa, literally "heavy troops"). There were effectively 24 Banners when the Manchus conquered Ming China, eight of them mainly staffed with Manchus, eight staffed with Mongols, and eight staffed with Chinese. This difference was not further adhered to during the Qing period, but Banners were simply called with the colour of their flag.

Table 1. The Eight Banners (baqi 八旗)
kubuhe suwayan gūsa 鑲黃旗 xianghuang qi Bordered Yellow Banner
gulu suwayan gūsa 正黃旗 zhenghuang qi Plain Yellow Banner
gulu šanggiyan gūsa 正白旗 zhengbai qi Plain White Banner
gulu fulgiyan gūsa 正紅旗 zhenghong qi Plain Red Banner
kubuhe šanggiyan gūsa 鑲白旗 xiangbai qi Bordered White Banner
kubuhe fulgiyan gūsa 鑲紅旗 xianghong qi Bordered Red Banner
gulu lamun gūsa 正藍旗 zhenglan qi Plain Blue Banner
kubuhe lamun gūsa 鑲藍旗 xianglan qi Bordered Blue Banner

In 1650 the Shunzhi Emperor 順治 (r. 1643-1661), after having overcome the powerful regent Dorgon (Ch. Duo'ergun 多爾袞, 1612-1650), struggled for greater control of the Banner commanders by the Emperor. The Bordered Yellow Banner, the Plain Yellow Banner and the Plain White Banner were directly put under the control of the ruler as the Three Upper Banners (shangsanqi 上三旗 or neifu sanqi 内府三旗, Manchu booi ilan gūsa), while the other five "lower" banners (xiawuqi 下五旗) remained under the control of Manchu princes. The Upper Banners took over the protection of the Emperor and the imperial city, while the Lower Banners guarded the capital Beijing and the provinces.

The Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) further strenghened imperial power by depriving the princes of military command over a whole Banner. This happened by dividing the administration of the Five Lower Banners into Banner-company commanders (qifen zuoling 旗分佐領, or wai zuoling 外佐領 "outer company commander", zuoling being the Chinese translation of niru ejen) and garrison-company commanders (fushu zuoling 府屬佐領, or nei zuoling 内佐領 "inner company commanders"). The Banner-company commanders practically understood the command of the emperor, so that at least part of each Banner could directly be controlled by the central government.

The Three Upper Banners and the Plain Blue Banner formed the so-called left wing (zuoyi 左翼, dashūwan gala) of the whole Banner army, and the other Banners the right wing (youyi 右翼, jebele gala). When the Manchus entered the Shanhai Pass 山海關 in 1644 there were 309 full and 18 incomplete Manchu companies, 117 full and 5 incomplete Mongol companies and 157 full and 5 incomplete Chinese companies, making a total of 583 full and 28 incomplete companies. During the Kangxi reign-period 康熙 (1662-1722) there were already 669 Manchu companies, and a century later, during the Jiaqing reign-period 嘉慶 (1796-1820), 681 Manchu companies. The Mongol companies amounted to 204 during the Yongzheng reign-period (early 18th cent.). There were also 35 full and 2 incomplete Mongol companies among the Manchu Banners. At the same time there were 270 Chinese Banner companies that were reduced to 266 in 1790, while surplus Chinese in the Banner garrisons had to give up Banner status. At the end of the Qing period there were 6,680 Banner officers and 120,000 common troops.

Theoretically, all male persons in the Banners were professional soldiers and served in the army, yet in fact, the number of posts in garrisons, either officers or common troops, was limited (ding'e 定額 "fixed numbers"), so that with the increase in the Banner population especially during the relatively peaceful and economically prosperous 18th century, more and more Bannermen were not given a post in the military and had to make a living otherwise than as a soldier. Before the Manchus conquered Beijing it was assumed that the male Banner population worked the fields or engaged in any other business during peacetime and joined their military leaders in times of war. After the conquest of China the Banner population was transformed into a hereditary military "caste" whose members were professional soldiers and should not engage in any other business.

The reasons for this were two, namely the permament readiness for the self-defence of the Manchu conquest elite that, at least in the early decades of the Qing empire, was permanently threatened to loose its grip on the central power, and secondly, that the decades-long war machine of the Manchus would not easily to be dismembered in peacetime. The Banners became Qing China's professional soldier elite with a hereditary status. Sons and younger brothers inherited the posts of their fathers and older brothers. Their salary and welfare system was provided for by the state. Banners were elite troops that were used as crackdown troops in warfare, while the purely Chinese Green Standard troops (lüyingbing 綠營兵, also called lüqi 綠旗 "Green Banners", Manchu niowanggiyen terun) took over policing tasks throughout the empire.

The largest part of the Banner troops stood in Beijing (zhujing baqi 駐京八旗, short jingqi 京旗 "Capital Banners") around the Imperial Palace, where also several elite contingents were garrisoned, like the Firearms Brigade (huoqiying 火器營), the Scouting Brigade (jianruiying 健銳營), or the Vanguard Brigade (qianfengying 前鋒營). There was a clear separation between Banner quarters (what Western observers called the "Tartar city") and Chinese quarters (the "Chinese city"). A smaller part of the Banner troops was concentrated in circumvalled "ghettos" in provincial capitals (zhufang baqi 駐防八旗 "Provincial Banners").

The Capital Banners took over the task to protect the Imperial Palace and the imperial family. They built up specialized brigades, like the Imperial Bodyguard (shiwei qinjun 侍衛親軍), which was the Emperor's own elite unit, or the Imperial Procession Guard (luanyiwei 鑾儀衛) that protected the Emperor and the Empress when going out, or troops from the *Excellent Fighters Brigade (shanpuying 善撲營) that was used for the display of martial arts. These three units were called *court guards (langwei 郎衛), while other units of the Capital were called *military guards (bingwei 兵衛). They mainly took over guard services.

The provincial Banners can be divided into three groups, namely those settled down in the environment of Beijing (jifu zhufang bing 畿輔駐防兵), like Baoding 保定, Zhangjiakou 張家口, Jehol (Rehe 熱河), Chahar 察哈爾 and the imperial summer resort in Mulan 木蘭, those in the Three Northeastern Provinces (dongsansheng zhufang bing 東三省駐防兵) and the provincial banners (zhisheng zhufang bing 直省駐防兵). At the end of the Qing period there were 817 companies in the provinces. The troops in the larger provinces were commanded by a Banner general (jiangjun 將軍, Manchu transliteration janggin) who was assisted by a Vice commander-in-chief (fudutong). In smaller provinces the Vice commander had the highest position in the Banner structure.

Table 3. Ranks of provincial Banner troops (zhufang bing 駐防兵)
Hucker Brunnert/Hagelstrom
將軍 Ch. jiangjun, Man. jiyanggiyūn, Mong. ǰangǰun provincial Banner general Manchu general-in-chief
副都統 Ch. fudutong, Man. meiren i janggin, Mong. meyiren-ü ǰanggi 2a vice commander-in-chief Manchu brigade-general
副將軍 Ch. fujiangjun vice general (same as fudutong)
協領 Ch. xieling, Man. gūsa-i da, Mong. qosiɣun-u daruɣa 3a assistant commandant colonel of a regiment
城守尉 Ch. chengshouwei, Man. hoton i da, Mong. qotan-u daruɣa 3b garrison commandant commandant of a minor garrison
防守尉 Ch. fangshouwei 4a post commandant commandant of the 2nd class of a minor garrison
佐領 Ch. zuoling, Man. hiru-i janggin, Mong. sumun-u ǰanggi 4b company commander major commander of a company
防禦 Ch. fangyu 5a platoon commander captain of a platoon
驍騎校 Ch. xiaojixiao, Man. funde bošokū, Mong. tölüge kögegči 7-8 lieutenant lieutenant
前鋒 Ch. qianfeng, Man. gabsihiyan, Mong. ɣabsiɣai -- [] sergeant
領催 Ch. lingcui, Man. bošokū, Mong. kögegči -- [] corporal
驍騎 Ch. xiaoji, Man. aliha cooha, Mong. daɣaɣaɣsan čerig -- [cavalryman] private

Each Banner was headed by a Commander-in-chief (dutong 都統) who was assisted by two Vice Commanders. In 1723, General Headquarters (dutong yamen) was created whose members were the 24 Commanders-in-chief and their lieutenants. They had to care for command, training, household registers (important for the recruitment of troops), military education, and ennoblement, as well as civilian matters like marriage, funerals, selection of males and their appointment to positions in the garrisons, care for the tombyards, selection of girls for service in the Imperial Palace, justice, field allotment, purchase of real estate, organisation of the slaves (aha) and bondservants (booi, Chinese transliteration baoyi 包衣) attached to the households, and so on.

Of course, many Manchus still lived in their homelands in "Manchuria" in the northeast. Officer ranks, salary and rights of the Banner troops were different than that of the Green Standard troops, as was their fighting power. In many wars of the 18th century Banner troops took over decisive roles in subduing the enemy, so that Green Standard troops were often dispised as whimps and cowards by the Bannermen. The salary of different types of troops among the Banners also differed. Imperial guards, vanguard troops, artillery units, guard units, heavy cavalry (majia 馬甲), heavy infantry (pijia 披甲) and infantry (bubing 步兵) and trainees (yangyubing 養育兵) were granted different salaries.

The Banner system included the possibility of ennoblement. During the early years of the Manchu empire, the only noble rank was that of Prince (beile 貝勒, no Chinese counterpart), but Hong Taiji created nine, then ten ranks of hereditary nobility that could bestowed upon members of the imperial family. Another sequence of nine hereditary ranks could also bestowed upon other members of the Banners (for a list of these ranks, see the article Titles of Nobility). In the late 19th century even non-members of the Banners could be granted such titles. Manchus, Mongols and Chinese Banner members could be ennobled. Common members of the Banners were registered in households. These registers were refreshed every three years. Banner members were entitled to go to Banner schools, yet only members of the higher ranks in fact visited these schools, especially family members of the dynasty that visited the Aisin Gioro school (Chinese Aixin Jueluo xue 愛新覺羅學). Intermarriage between Manchus and Chinese was in theory forbidden, but the common Banner people did not observe this prohibition. Even many secondary wives of emperors hailed from the Chinese Banners.

The early Banner system was created as a means of quick recuitment of troops in case of war. In peacetime, members of the Banners were simple peasants (chu ze wei bing, ru ze wei min 出則為兵,入則為民). Yet after the conquest of China, the Banner troops ceased being peacetime peasants and became professional soldiers. Male members of the Banners that did not occupy a post in a garrison were free to engage in any business. The soldiers were paid out a regular salary regardless if they went to war or not. This salary consisted of money and rice rations that sufficed to nourish a family. On campaigning, they were given extra allowances and rewards in case of victory. Troops living around the capital were allotted tracts of land (quandi 圈地) in the initial phase of conquest (see Banner land). The last allotment was undertaken in 1685. In the beginning, only barren and ownerless land was confiscated, as well as areas belonging to Ming princes and the Ming aristocracy or to the wealthier ones among the court eunuchs.

When ever more Bannermen arrived in the area of Beijing, more tracts of land were confiscated without giving a compensation to the former owners. In some northern provinces, the Banners confiscated land, too, but on a much smaller scale. Officially it was forbidden to sale this land, but many Bannermen preferred cashing in by selling their tracts of land to Chinese.

Unlike other state officials dealing with the local population, the Bannermen did not have an opportunity to engage in commercial activities or other professions, so that in the course of time the purchasing power of their salaries declined. Indebtedness became a common phenomenon among Manchus. In the late 18th century the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (1736-1795) decided to allow those Bannermen to leave the Banners which did not occupy a position in the garrions. In this way it would be possible to reduce the population pressure in the Banner "ghettos". At the same time he decreed that all Chinese Bannermen lost their status and were expelled from the Banners. The dynasty at that time fought with the problem that their own people belonged to the economically less successful social groups and that the Manchus gradually not only lost their fighting spirit but also their cultural heritage in the Chinese environment.

The Banners more and more lost their military importance, especially after the two Opium Wars (see First Opium War), but the whole system remained intact until the end of the dynasty in 1912.

Brunnert, H.S. , V.V. Hagelstrom (1912). Present Day Political Organization of China (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh).
Chen Jiahua 陳佳華 (1992). "Baqi zhidu 八旗制度", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 11-13.
Hucker, Charles O. (1985). A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press), no. 17.
Nan Bingwen 南昞文 (1992). "Quandiling 圈地令", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 852.
Wang Gesheng 王革生 (1992). "Hanjun baqi 漢軍八旗", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 349.

Further reading:
Elliott, Mark C. (2006). "Ethnicity in the Qing Eight Banners", in Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu, Donald S. Sutton, eds. Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press), 27-57.
Elliott, Mark C., Cameron Campbell, James Lee (2016). "A Demographic Estimate of the Population of the Qing Eight Banners", Études chinoises, 35/1: 9-39.
Gao, Yan. "The Retreat of the Horses: the Manchus, Land Reclamation, and Local Ecology in the Jianghan Plain (ca.1700s-1850s)", in: Liu Tsʻui-jung, ed. Environmental History in East Asia: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London/New York: Routledge), 100-125.
Sugiyama, Kiyohiko (2005). "The Ch‘ing Empire as a Manchu Khanate: The Structure of Rule under the Eight Banners", Acta Asiatica, 88: 21-48.