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Put sharp and shortly, the Jinyiwei (錦衣衛) or “Brocade-Clad Guard” were the Imperial Secret Police Force of the Ming Emperors, and were given next to unlimited power to torture, punish, arrest and interrogate anyone who the Emperor deemed was a threat to him.


They had and still have no historical International equivalent, but are instead usually considered to be a combination of the Political Commissars of the Soviet unx, the Stasi of the German Democratic Republic, and or the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire, or the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire.


An artist’s impression of the highly secretive Brocade Clad Guard escorting the Emperor’s prized horses during an Imperial Parade:


This was a fact which allowed them to uphold the 276 year long rule of the tyrannical Ming Dynasty of China (1368–1644 AD), unprecedented before in all of Imperial China’s lengthy history, as totalitarian regimes often usually only lasted up to 4 decades at best, for failing to improve the lives of the Chinese people.


Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, their unlimited power blew up to such unprecedented levels, that even the famous Imperial “Mandarin” Officials had to physically bow down to them, each and every time the two parties would come to meet.


Most notably also, was the fact that absolutely no one in Ming China was off limits to the Brocade Clad Guard with regards to political immunity, not even the Emperor’s own family members, nor the Nobility, nor even the Mandarins themselves. The Law most noticeably, could be ignored and even temporarily changed to accommodate the activities and needs of the Jinyiwei, as they slowly hunted down all enemies of the State across all four corners of the nation.


An artist’s impression of several Jinyiwei officers guarding the Emperor’s prized possessions:


They were feared both at home and abroad by Ming Chinese and non-Chinese alike, as the Guard often conducted international campaigns regarding reconnaissance directly into the heartland of enemy territories, of which the Ming considered to be a serious threat to the national stability of the Celestial Empire.


They were accountable only to the Emperor himself, and came to be feared by all in Ming China alike. It was by their efforts that the Ming Empire became one of the world’s first noticeable, large scale surveillance and Police State, on a scale seldom seen before until then, regarding the amount of people and land area to which it universally applied to and throughout respectively.


The Agents of the Jinyiwei could however be distinguished most of the times easily, as they usually wore a set of brightly coloured Golden embroidered robes, and each member of Jinyiwei meanwhile came attached with both a special distinctive blade, and a badge which allowed them to be identified as one of the members of the Secret Police.


An example of a Badge belonging to the Brocade-Clad Guard, this one had inscribed on it specifically, the words “Commander of the Jinyiwei, Ma Shun”:


Warning: Slightly long answer dead ahead of 3,600 words, good luck.
Here are the contents for ease of navigation:
Part I: Origins and History of the Brocade-Clad Guard
Part II: Operations, Structure and Rivals of the Embroidered Uniform Guard
Final Summary
Source Utilized


Chapter I: Origins and History of the Brocade-Clad Guard
The Jinyiwei initially were formed during the turbulent years of the Chinese Revolution against the Mongol Empire, which at the time ruled over all of China under the infamous Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368 AD).
Territories of the Yuan Dynasty at the time:


The Guard, initially a group of dedicated followers were formed as early as 1360 AD, in order to protect one of the many leaders of an otherwise mutually hostile and non-cooperative revolution: the former peasant and Buddhist Monk; Zhu Yuanzhang.


As such, Zhu often had many potential enemies at any given time which wanted him dead, most notably his archnemesis, and rival revolutionary Chen Youliang, but otherwise they ranged from soldiers to commanders of the Mongol Regime to other Chinese rebels alike. Thus, the Jinyiwei were formed first and foremostly as bodyguards albeit informally at the time, in order to ensure Zhu’s personal safety for this very reason.


Even when the Revolution was over however, and all his enemies were either “six feet under”, or unlikely as it may have been in jail, instead of disbanding the Guard, Zhu (now the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty under the title “Hongwu”) instead officially instituted and incorporated them into the Ming Empire, as an officially sanctioned government organization in 1382 AD.


It was an organization which was only initially 500 members strong, but was then rapidly increased in scale merely 3 years later, to approximately 14,000 inquisitors. All members were however, granted merely limited power early on.


A portrait of Zhu Yuanzhang, Founder and Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty of China:


Of course, as an intelligent individual, he sensed that no-one would tolerate such a mysterious and unaccountable organization as that of the Brocade-Clad Guard, even if he himself (as an Emperor’s power was not insignificant) was the one to have legalized their activities.


As such, the Hongwu Emperor tried to justify his actions to the Imperial Government by insisting that he had formed the Jinyiwei, directly in response to the problems that had plagued China in the past, insisting that they were essentially his solution to what he claimed was an ongoing, and recurring large scale political issue.


Territories of the Ming Dynasty at its peak from 1407–28 AD at 6.5 million km^2:


By the time it became undeniably clear to even the common people, regarding who the Jinyiwei actually were, the Emperor authorized the Secret Police to expand their operations, and subsequently empowered them such, that they were given the mandated authority, to thus relentlessly hunt down all the enemies of the State officially, but really just all who the Emperor saw or perceived as threats to his reign.


In response to the Emperor’s commands, the Brocade-Clad Guard established their headquarters West of Tiananmen Square, and upgraded their facilities such that they all now came equipped with interrogation rooms, along with prison cells where political prisoners would be housed, in order to make it a secret of their whereabouts to anyone who would potentially come to their rescue, as they suffered under the routine physical, mental and psychological tortures of the Jinyiwei.


The “Great Hall of the People” in Modern China today (this is exactly where the former Headquarters of the Jinyiwei were located: West of Tiananmen Square):


Because they were given full autonomy with regards to who they would hunt down, and when and where this was to be done, it should have been expected thus that within the ranks of the Jinyiwei itself, there was always at any given time no short amount of ongoing power abuse, by the highest ranking officials especially of the Brocade-Clad Guard, who went on frequent “power trips”.


Eventually, in the year 1393 AD, even the Emperor Hongwu who had first commissioned such a malevolent and omnipresent organization, became particular unnerved by them such, that he eventually had them disbanded, especially in response to the sudden execution in one particular instance, of 15–40,000 people by the Jinyiwei (depending on sources), who claimed that they had done so only to protect the Emperor, which was most likely not the entire case obxtively.


But such an act did not last long however, and soon enough once more, they were eventually recommissioned and returned to their former post in Chinese society, by the Third Ming Emperor, Yongle who had come to power illegally at the time by overthrowing his nephew, who was before the second Ming Emperor.
An Imperial Portrait of Emperor Yongle, the man who recommisioned the Jinyiwei Embroidered Uniform Guard:


An Imperial Portrait of Emperor Yongle, the man who recommisioned the Jinyiwei Embroidered Uniform Guard:


With the Jinyiwei now back in operations, and once more officially endorsed by the Emperor, their numbers and base of operations continued to expand. By the time of the Zhengde Emperor of Ming in the earliest years of the 1500s, the Secret Police Force had grown so large that it now numbered at 200,000 agents, far more than enough to secretly manage and manipulate a vast population of what at the time in the early 1500s was approximately (according to rough estimates) 125 million people, creating a large scale Police State essentially.


It was because of the Jinyiwei, that the Ming Dynasty became one of the world’s first police states, where one had to be careful of one’s actions especially in public, but perhaps even at home lest one of the agents from the infamous Jinyiwei was currently tracking you down, subsequently earning you a spot at their headquarters, subjected to days long if not weeks long physical torture as a consequence, for your poor decision.


For roughly two and a half centuries the spectre of the Jinyiwei haunted all China, and was finally only forcefully ended at the end of the Ming Dynasty, when all Imperial agents were summoned back to the Capital of Beijing, in order to defend their Emperor to the death, against the incoming rebels forces of Li Zicheng.


An artist’s impression of the Jinyiwei tending to the personal horses of the Ming Emperor:


After all, for all intents and purposes, they were first and foremostly the personal bodyguard of the Emperor, as they were originally intended to be as such (apart from the Imperial Palace Guards), thus even after the Emperor had suicided by hanging himself, rather than flee for their lives, the Jinyiwei all fought heroically down to the last man, finally ridding China of the Ming Police State once and for all.


Alas, by that time however, such a former concern was no longer the largest threat to the nation, as those familiar with Chinese History will know.


Up until that point however, the powers of the Jinyiwei over time had consistently declined, as the Empire became more prosperous, and the Emperors themselves either weaker, or more reluctant to actually rule, allowing the Court Eunuchs instead to seize power for themselves, and the Jinyiwei meanwhile relegated to the lowly position of being little more than a glorified bodyguard at home, yet still noticeably feared abroad.


Part II: Operations, Structure and Rivals of the Embroidered Uniform Guard


As is extremely clear, the Jinyiwei were not just a well funded, and extremely powerful secret force to be reckoned with, but were also very highly organized indeed.


The Jinyiwei most noticeably did not just operate at home, but also abroad as well, indirectly protecting the nation also, as of course an invasion especially by the former Mongol Empire would hurt not only China, but the Emperor as well. They did this by serving as the State’s chief and foremost Military Intelligence Agency, and often monitored the movement of foreign armies if they trekked anywhere near the borders of the Ming Empire.


An artist’s impression of what a Jinyiwei Agent was supposed to look like, with both his distinctive golden robes, and sword present:


Supposedly, certain members of the Jinyiwei were even sent in deep cover operations into the heartland of Mongolia, where the agents posed as one of the nomads themselves, in order to directly acquire and relay back home, all information which they interpreted could help the Ming Imperial Army defeat the Mongols, should they invade again, which widespread paranoia would have it at the time was virtually a given.


However, it was at home rather than abroad that they were the most feared. The mere fact that they existed for the sole purpose which they did, was a thought which scared most individuals of the Ming citizenry straight out of their minds.


The issue is, that the laws of the Empire of Ming applied to everyone, and everywhere within the Ming Empire itself, except for when the Guard required so otherwise. All who committed crimes were to be put on trial first before being sentenced, unless the Guard commanded so otherwise.


The Jinyiwei were special in that they could hunt down anyone whenever, and wherever, and could even skip the entire trial process, and go straight to the punishment stage, in order to extract a confession, or simply to torture for the sake of it. Whenever they were around, one’s legal rights or “due process” was immediately revoked, if they said so.


An image below depicting the Late Ming Era Armour adorned by the Jinyiwei (Source: UNIT. Late Ming Imperial Guard 錦衣衛連鐶甲):


Even the Ming Imperial Army itself was not safe however, for the fact remained that each strike force at any given time always came equipped with an agent of the Jinyiwei, who did not fall under the command of the Ming General, and could instead act entirely independently of what was the norm for the Army.


This was done to ensure absolute compliance with the Emperor’s commands, thus ensuring that whatever needed to be done, was always done (at least in theory), the agents of the Brocade-Clad Guard thus, were also political commissars in this regard, resembling the commissars of the Soviet unx, who would likewise monitor the Soviet Armed Forces for signs of disobedience to the State, or in the case of the Jinyiwei, the Emperor.


Fear defined the relationship between all peoples of high and low with respects to the Jinyiwei. They were an omnipotent and seemingly omnipresent force, which could strike at any given time.


For example, it was directly as a result of the efforts of the Brocade-Clad Guard’s Southern Division, rather than that of Chinese Scientists and Engineers, that much of the Ming Empire’s Missile Technologies were first experimented upon, before subsequently being applied to the relevant areas of the Imperial Army, when they had finished being developed, and were especially supplied thus to those stationed all along the Great Wall of China.


An image below of the Great Wall of China, which was already manned by 11 armies all across, were subsequently then bolstered in strength when missile technologies developed by the Jinyiwei were further given to them, greatly increasing the fortifications of the Great Wall:


The Jinyiwei did not always remain so powerful either, but more and more were forced to “share” their power at home, with other domestic agencies, most widely known of which were the Eunuch sponsored Intelligence Agencies of the infamous Western and Eastern Bureaus, which acted to counter the efforts of the Brocade-Clad Guard.


This was only made possible because as time went on, the Ming Empire grew more corrupt, the Emperor grew weaker meanwhile, and as a result rose the Eunuch Faction of the Imperial Court.


In direct contrast to the Embroidered Uniform Guard which was owned by the Emperor, and therefore directly reported to him, the Western and Eastern Bureaus were owned and sponsored by the Court Eunuchs, who during especially the later half of the Ming Empire, became one of the most powerful political factions in the Celestial Empire.


Their power and wealth became so great, and unstoppable, that it even begun to perhaps equal if not eclipse the Ming Government itself, which was run by the Mandarins. As the Eunuchs did not trust their rivals; the Imperial Government, nor the Prime Minister who lead it, they instead resorted to relying on the Bureaus which they had created, to supply to them an alternative source of information which was “untainted”.


The Jinyiwei were extremely powerful, and highly feared both at home and abroad, and whilst they had no historical equivalent, could often be partly said to be a combination of the Soviet Political Commissar, part Roman Praetorian and also part East German Stasi, acting to monitor the Army, protect the Emperor, and whilst also surveilling and watching out for any dissenters if need be.


It was by their efforts perhaps, that the Ming Empire lasted as long as it did; for an unprecedented 276 years, which when viewed from a historical point of view for China at least, was impossible for such a totalitarian regime.