Qi Jiguang (1528–1588), born in Dengzhou (present-day Penglai), Shandong province, was a prominent military strategist and a national hero of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Qi Jiguang was born to a military family. His ancestor Qi Xiang (d. 1381) was a meritorious military officer under Emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1398) of the Ming. For more than 140 years after Qi Xiang’s death in battle, his descendants had served as military officers in Dengzhou. Qi Jiguang’s father Qi Jingtong (1473–1544) was a skilled martial arts expert and an upright and devoted military general. Strongly influenced by his family, Qi Jiguang took an early interest in the military. As a child, he built ramparts from clay, piled up rubble to form barracks, and made flags from bamboo sticks and paper to play war games with his friends and himself as the commander.
After Qi Jingtong died, Qi Jiguang succeeded his father as commander-in-chief of Dengzhou at the age of seventeen. Five years later, Qi Jiguang passed the provincial military examination. When he went to the imperial capital to take the metropolitan exam the following year, Altan Khaan’s Mongol army was closing in on Beijing. During his temporary assignment to guard the nine gates of the capital, Qi Jiguang twice submitted defense proposals to the emperor and showed remarkable military talent. This earned him the promotion in 1553 to defend the Shandong coast against wokou (pirate attacks).
Wokou refers to pirates who were based in the Ryukyus and raided cities and towns on the Korean Peninsula and along the Chinese coastline. The sixteenth century saw the heyday of piracy on the southeast coast of China. On assuming his post in Shandong, Qi Jiguang reorganized the troops and drilled the soldiers, which greatly strengthened the coastal defense. He was later ordered to repel wokou in Zhejiang and Fujian.
While commanding troops in Zhejiang, Qi found the inhabitants of Yiwu county particularly valiant. He went there and recruited 3,000 peasants and miners. He equipped them with appropriate weapons and trained them in small groups. These warriors, known as Qi’s Army, demonstrated outstanding abilities by decimating the wokou in each of the nine battles they fought in Taizhou.
Qi Jiguang continued to hunt the surviving pirates as they retreated to Fujian. After taking out several wokou dens in 1562, Qi Jiguang went to Zhejiang to recruit more troops. Emboldened by his absence, the wokou captured Xinghua prefecture and took Pinghaiwei (Pinghai Fort) as their new base. The following year, Qi Jiguang returned to Fujian and crushed the wokou at their fortress base. After further engagements, piracy on the southeast coast was eradicated.
Following the suppression of the wokou in the south, the emperor transferred Qi to the north to guard Jizhou against incursions of foreign groups such as the Tartars. Qi Jiguang enforced military regulations, strengthened the frontier defense, and formulated unique tactics for use on the northern terrain. During the early reign of the Wanli emperor (1570s), the Mongol army led by Dong Huli, chieftain of the Duoyan tribe, continuously invaded the Ming territory. Qi Jiguang’s troops defeated them many times and captured Dong Huli’s younger brother Changtu. When Dong Huli brought his nephew and 300 clansmen to beg tearfully for mercy at the outpost, Qi Jiguang accepted their surrender. Dong released captives from his previous plunders and vowed to never invade Jizhou again.
Qi Jiguang’s outstanding talent at military command is the reason behind his troops’ undefeated record. Jixiao xinshu (New book of effective discipline) and Lianbing shiji (Record of military training), Qi Jiguang’s two military treatises, encapsulate his experience of commanding troops in war. Later military strategists have hailed them as classics.
Also known as an adept poet, Qi Jiguang enjoyed composing poems while drinking with his literati friends. He composed numerous poems and prose pieces, and compiled the five-volume Zhizhitang ji (Zhizhitang collection) in his later years. In addition, he was a renowned calligrapher, and many of his works have been passed down to this day.