China's history is almost incomprehensibly rich, long and detailed, especially when you approach it from a North American perspective (land of "history in two minutes"). Much as modern China has cities of nearly ten million people that you likely haven't heard of, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of China's history. Perhaps that's why Qi Jiguang (戚继光, Qī Jìguāng) isn't as well-known internationally as some of his fellow Chinese war heroes and pioneers like Zheng He (郑和, Zhèng Hé), but he was a notable, interesting, and courageous man nonetheless. During the Ming Dynasty he defeated Japanese pirates and helped build the Great Wall, so we're going to take a closer look at the life, times, and death of 戚继光, born 424 years ago!
Qi Jiguang was born in the town of 鲁桥 (Lǔqiáo) in Shandong province, but from early in his life he was something of a journeyman and a prodigy. His family had a long history of military service, and when his father, a well-regarded military man himself, passed away, 戚继光 was put in command of a garrison at Dengzhou (the 登州卫, Dēngzhōu wèi) at the tender age of 17 (not even old enough to drive in most countries). In a preview of things to come, at just 19 years old he marched his troops northward to defend the city of 蓟州 (Jìzhōu) from Mongolian invaders. Before even finishing his teen years, 戚继光 had established himself as a formidable military leader and had traveled extensively throughout Central China, gaining experience and wisdom that few his age could match.
It wasn't long before his prowess came to the attention of local officials, and 戚继光 was soon put in charge of combating a force that had plagued Eastern China for quite some time: Japanese pirates, known as 倭寇 (wōkòu). 倭寇 were becoming increasingly troublesome to the Ming rulers, who had banned commercial trade with Japan in an effort to diminish the pirates' power and influence. The measure backfired, however, and piracy continued, with a focus on China's North and Central coastal regions. He quickly went to work, establishing powerful defenses along the coast of his native Shandong. As pirates moved southward along the coast seeking more vulnerable targets, Qi Jiguang followed them, earning decisive victory after decisive victory as his legend grew. After a series of battles on the Zhejiang coast, pirates moved still further south, to modern-day Fujian province, and 戚继光 and his growing army marched to meet them for a memorable series of battles in the summer of 1562. Despite a string of victories for Chinese forces, the 倭寇 regrouped with the help of Chinese collaborators. Qi Jiguang was having none of it, however, and led a force of some 10,000 men to victory against the pirates on 南澳岛 (Nán'ào dǎo), as island off the coast of present-day Guangdong that was also the site of a famous battle during the Chinese Civil War.
With the piracy problem on the Southern coast suitably licked, 戚继光 was called to Beijing to lend his expertise to the training of the imperial guards, some of the most important soldiers in all of China. Bored by what he felt was demeaning office work, 戚继光 assumed command of troops fighting to keep Mongol soldiers out of the area. As part of this effort, he was actually placed in charge of reinforcing the Great Wall (长城, Cháng chéng) and spearheaded the construction of many of the distinctive watchtowers that are now one of the hallmarks of the Wall.
There's one more thing 戚继光 is well known-for today, and it has little to do with his myriad military magnum opuses. Supposedly, as he fought Japanese pirates on the Fujian coast, local villagers prepared round cakes, with holes in the middle, to be carried into battle conveniently (they were hung in rows on sticks, the legends say). These cakes became known as 光饼 (guāngbǐng) after the fearless leader of the troops who consumed them by the ton.
We hope you've enjoyed this quick bio of one of the most interesting, yet oft-forgotten men in Chinese history. Without 戚继光's courage and skills, China as we know it today might be quite different!