History Lessons

Esen Tayisi

The ‘almost’ emperor

In July 1449 Esen Tayisi of the Mongols launched a large-scale invasion of China. In Datong (in northern Shanxi province), 5,000 Mongol cavalry annihilated their Chinese opponents and captured a huge quantity of arms and armour. Along with their booty, they were surprised to discover that the 22 year-old Ming Emperor Zhengtong was among their captives.

This sudden good fortune caught Esen by surprise. He had not been expecting the easy victory, let alone the capture of the Ming Emperor.

At first, he was tempted to use the prisoner as a bargaining chip to raise a ransom and to conquer the undefended Ming capital of Beijing. But he wanted to take full advantage of his position. Unable to make up his mind, he withdrew to make new plans, only advancing on Beijing after six weeks’ delay.

The dithering was fatal. By the time Esen arrived in mid-October, the Chinese government had pulled itself together. It refused to offer terms for Esen’s royal prisoner either.

A new minister of war, Yu Qian, rejected Esen’s demands and stated the country was more important than an emperor’s life – a novel concept at the time. Yu had already backed a new candidate to replace Zhengtong. The Mongol captive was thus rendered irrelevant.

Militarily, Esen knew he would not be able to repeat the previous walkover victory, and he was not prepared to mount a siege of the city. After five days, the Mongols turned back; quietly. Esen later returned the ex-emperor to Beijing.

The lesson? Delay and dither at your peril. Esen’s failure was to hesitate in exploiting his intial victory, as well as the good fortune of the capture of the Ming Emperor.

Esen was assassinated six years after his victory at the Battle of Tumu – a battle that ‘almost’ made him emperor. Although the Mongols later occupied the Ordos desert, they never again seriously threatened the Ming state.


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