Battle of Tumu

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The Battle of Tumu was a 1449 confrontation between forces of the Chinese Ming Dynasty and those of the Oirats, a Mongol confederation under a man named Esen (d. 1455).

As the Oirats gained strength, the Zhengtong Emperor was pressured by his eunuch military advisors to launch expeditions against them, even as his chief civil advisors advised against it. In 1449, finally, the Emperor led forces into the north, where they suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Mongols. It was on their journey back to Beijing that the events at Tumu took place.

Tumu was at that time a remote, desolate post-station. The retreating Ming troops arrived there as a heavy rain began to fall. Seeking a source of drinking water, they began to dig for wells, but were unsuccessful in the dry Chinese north. By the time they realized there was a river nearby, the river was controlled by Oirat forces. The Emperor ordered his chief eunuch to approach the Oirats with a surrender and request for peace, but the eunuch disobeyed and ordered an attack. The entire Ming army pressed forward for about a mile, guarding the Imperial palanquin at its center. They then found themselves surrounded on all sides by Mongol forces. The Mongols called out a demand that the Chinese soldiers drop their weapons and armor, and surrender. The soldiers instead charged at the Mongols, getting cut to pieces. The Mongols loosed countless arrows, killing even the Emperor's personal guard, but spared the Emperor, capturing him and taking him back to Mongolia.


A new emperor, the Jingtai Emperor, took the throne in Zhengtong's absence, and took steps to suppress the eunuch factions at Court. The Mongols exacted little concessions from the Chinese after their great victory, but did lay siege unsuccessfully to Beijing, giving up on the siege after five days. The Zhengtong Emperor was freed in 1450 and permitted to return to Beijing, after which a succession dispute erupted between factions supporting him, and those supporting his younger brother, the Jingtai Emperor. The dispute continued for years, finally ending in 1457 with the Zhengtong Emperor regaining the throne, now under the title of the Tianshun Emperor.


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 385.
  1. Or two hours drive today.