The Eight Banner system has ties that can be noted and seen as far back as the Manchu clan system stage. During that time period, the Manchus would set out in what were called hunting activities of which they essentially were engaging in military operations that consisted of usually taking a family or village population and organized it as an organizational unit. During other times of military and agricultural crisis in China, it was the way of the Manchu to organize their people into short term or temporary groups that were called niulu (groups).
Through innovation and restructuring came the reform of this Manchu tradition into a long term formal banner organization. Each organized unit under the Banners divided the Nurzhen tribes into patrillineal sub units (belonging to their father’s lineage) that consisted of three hundred people which formed what is referred to as a company. The Eight Banner system came into existence during the early seventeenth century by the Jurchen chieftain as Nurhaci. In 1601, he began by reorganizing and restructuring the Jurchen military forces into four distinct units that were called banners.
A banner is a “flag or piece of cloth that bears a symbol, logo, slogan or other message. ” These banners became increasingly important administrative divisions that also provided a basic framework for the evolving Manchu military organization. The Yellow Banner represents the Aisin Gioro Clan. The origin of this clan stems from what is modern day North Korea. It was this clan that would be the location of which the Qing Dynasty emperors would descend from. The elite Yellow Banner was under the control of the emperor.
The White Banner represents the Sushin Clan. The people of the Sushin Clan lived and came from what is the Liaodong Peninsula, which is located off of the southernmost tip of Manchuria. The Red Banner represents the Xuxi Clan. The Xuxi Clan developed from the area that encompassed what is today’s Inner Mongolia and Gansu in China. The Blue Banner represents the Niuhuru Clan. The people of the Niuhuru Clan lived in what is the area that lies between Lake Baikal and the Gobi Desert.
It was from this clan that the Qing Dynasty empresses would descend and originate from. As the Banners conquered more tribes throughout their conquests to unite Manchuria, the realization that the four existing companies could not contain such a large and continually growing amount of men became evident. As a result, in 1615 the Four Banners doubled in size to form the larger Eight Banner system. The Manchu military successfully became an army of well trained, toughened, and disciplined warriors through arduous training and regular raids in the early Qing.
The Eight Banners were much more than an army serving an important military role, as the Banners also provided essential governmental, administrative, economic and social functions. After Nurhaci’s death, his eighth son Hong Taiji took control and organized conquered Mongol and Chinese adherents into the Eight Banner Army. The Chinese Banners were comprised of large numbers of Chinese people that were prisoners of war or defectors most likely from Ming China. The basic ethnic components that were prevalent in the Banners were the Manchu (originally called Jurchens), the Han Chinese, and the Mongols.
With these troops, Hong Taiji conquered Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus immediately became a minority after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty and the Eight Banners became a bureaucratic war machine which allowed the Qing emperors to rule over the existing majority that were the Han Chinese. The establishment of the Eight Banners became the strong suit and core strength of the Chinese military that would proceed to dominate the early Qing Empire.
During these times the Eight Banners and Qing Dynasty military system was effective at preserving the dynasty’s stance and position of power, creating security by launching military campaigns. The Eight Banners did not actually live and fight like units, but they were stationed across various strategic points and population centers throughout China. As the Chinese Manchu began to engage in war conquests conquering their Chinese and Mongol neighbors, they took the captives under them and constructed new companies of which they modeled after the banner system.
The Manchus eventually added the eight Mongol Banners to their system in 1635 and in 1642 they added eight more Chinese Banners to the system. The additions of these Banners brought the combined total to a system consisting of twenty four Banners that would fight next to the old ones. The development and consolidation of these troops and the Banner System was a major factor that allowed the Manchu to conquer China and establish the Qing Dynasty.