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Warriors, Killers and Spies

War and Espionage in Asian History


Throughout Asian history, various groups have been famed as warriors, as stealthy killers, or as spies. Some are written of with admiration, even by their enemies, while others are almost universally reviled.

Each group formed for a different reason, or around a different unifying theme. For some, it was religious. Others were based on ethnicity, or even on social class or status. Regardless of their motivations, however, all of these groups have gone down in history as warriors, as killers, or as spies.

Japanese Samurai

This portrait of a samurai in armor is from about 1878
David Murray Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photos

The samurai warrior class stood at the top of the feudal class structure in Japan for about 1000 years, until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to the abolition of samurai privileges. Samurai are one of the iconic images of Japanese history, with their top-knotted hair, tiled armor, and the signature pair of samurai swords (the long katana and the shorter wakizashi, together called daisho).

Each samurai served a regional lord, or daimyo, who ruled his domain from a tall wooden castle. If a samurai left his daimyo's service, was dismissed, or refused to commit seppuku when his daimyo died, that samurai became a wanderer or ronin. Although ronin were often considered to be dangerous and disreputable, the "47 Ronin" are heroes in Japan to this day.

Turkish Janissaries

These men are Solaks, the Janissary archers who served as the Sultan's bodyguards.
via Wikipedia

The Ottoman Turks ruled over a huge empire at the hinge-point between Europe, Asia and Africa between 1365 and 1918. For much of that time, their most elite soldiers were called the Janissaries.

The Janissary Corps was made up of specially chosen boys from Christian families, who had been "given" to the sultan as a form of tax payment called devshirme. Although traditional Turkish battle tactics relied upon cavalry and the use of compound bows, the Janissaries were designed to be a more modern force, capable of matching in battle the armies of other European powers. Beginning in the 1440s, the Janissaries were armed with guns; they were also the first army in the world to adopt standard infantry uniforms, which made it easier to distinguish friend from foe on the battle-field.

Indian Rajputs

These Rajput soldiers are on guard at the Amber Palace near Jaipur, India
Keystone Features / Getty Images

The Rajputs of northern India and parts of Pakistan are a Hindu clan of the Kshatriya (warrior) caste. According to legend, they are descended from the non-inhereting sons of kings; kingdoms generally passed to the oldest surviving son, so the younger brothers would become leading warriors instead.

The Rajputs ruled much of northern India in the 8th through 11th centuries, and always served as Hindu India's first line of defense against Muslim invasions from Afghanistan. Reputed to be fierce and dedicated soldiers, the Rajputs sometimes ended up serving in the armies of conquerors, including the Mughal Empire and the British Raj in India. The Rajput kingdoms were always granted a certain measure of self-rule in return.

Russian Cossacks

Different Cossack groups served on both sides in World War II
Hulton Archives / Getty Images

Although their exact genetic origins remain unknown, the Cossacks of Russia, Ukraine and Central Asia certainly are cultural descendants of a mixed Slavic and Turkic tradition. Fierce mounted warriors with a penchant for furry hats, their name comes from the same root as "Kazakh" - a Turkic word meaning "wanderer."

The Cossacks emerged as a major military and cultural force in Russia and surrounding countries in the fourteenth century, and their cavalry skills played a role in every regional war thereafter through World War II. Armed with sabers and spears, the Cossacks represent almost more of a lifestyle for some Eastern Europeans and Central Asians rather than an ethnic group.

Nepalese Gurkhas

Engineers from the Gurkha people of Nepal, on parade in Great Britain
Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Between 1814 and 1816, the Gurkhas of Nepal managed to fight the largest empire the world has ever seen to a standstill. The British Empire, with its crown jewel the Raj in India, sought to add Nepal as a buffer zone between itself and the southward-expanding Russian Empire. Taking Nepal was a logical next step for Britain in the "Great Game."

Nepal's famous Gurkha warriors had other ideas, though. They held their own against the British; as a result, instead of becoming an outright colony, Nepal became a British protectorate with an unusual degree of self-determination. The British were duly impressed with the fighting prowess of the Gurkhas, and hired many of them as mercenaries.

Japanese Ninjas

Perhaps the only figures in Japanese history that evoke equal interest to the samurai are their working-class counterparts, the ninja. While samurai were (supposed to be) bound to an elaborate honor code, called bushido, the ninja had no such restrictions. The ninja code of ninjutsu boiled down to a single idea: the ends justify the means.

As a result, samurai sometimes hired ninja to take on less honorable tasks. These might include spying, assassination, poisoning, and other such underhanded tactics.

Ninja often came from the farmer or laborer classes, although some were disgraced samurai (ronin) or rogue monks. They were not allowed to carry weapons, so had to make do with modified farm implements and other stealthy armaments.

Persian Assassins

Rashid al Din was a leader of the Assassins of Persia
via Wikipedia

The Assassins were a radical sect of Ismaili Muslims who operated out of mountain-top fortresses in Persia and neighboring countries. They would send operatives to insinuate themselves in to the courts of political and religious leaders over a matter of months or years, then suddenly catch the marked leader unawares and kill him.

Although the story that the Assassins were all high on hashish (hence the name Assassins or "Hashhashin") is apocryphal, the sect members certainly were dedicated to their creed. They killed a number of important people in the Middle East, and their reputation and name struck fear into the hearts of European rulers as well.

The Assassins began their reign of terror in the late 11th century, and continued until the Mongols beseiged their fortresses and wiped them out in 1276.

Indian Thuggee

via Wikipedia

Interestingly, the Thuggee or Thugs of India were a group united by violence, rather than by a particular religious or ethnic background. As bandits and murderers, however, they were said to worship the Hindu goddess Kali, the goddess of destruction.

The Thugs were supposed to kill by strangling their victims. They would join a trade caravan, insinuate themselves with the traders, and then kill them and take steal their goods.

Israeli Sicarii

The Sicarii were the "dagger-men" of the Zealot strain of Judaism in the 100s CE
GPO / Getty Images

An extremist branch of the Jewish Zealots, the Sicarii take their name from the Latin term for "dagger-men." In the first century C.E., the Sicarii used small, concealed daggers to assassinate Romans and Jewish collaborators.

One common tactic was to carry out the attacks during pilgrimages to the Temple Mount, and then melt away into the crowd. Unlike the later Persian Assassins, the Sicarii did not court death for their deeds. While dangerous, the assassinations were not planned as suicide attacks.

According to the historian Josephus, who is not always the most reliable source, the Jewish rebels who held out against a Roman siege in 73 C.E. at the fortress of Masada included members of the Sicarii. The Romans built an enormous ramp to the top of the mesa at Masada, but found that all of the rebels except a handful of women and children had committed suicide.

China's Shaolin Monks

This young monk displays intense focus.
Cancan Chu / Getty Images

The fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple in the Song Mountains of northern China are world-renowned for inventing wushu, or kung fu. Their techniques may have been created as a form of meditation, but the monks used their martial art both for defense of the temple and even for offensive military action.

Although it seems a bit odd that Buddhist monks would invent a martial art, the Shaolin monks had ample opportunity to fend off attacks. The temple was nearly destroyed at last during Mao Zedong's reign and the Cultural Revolution of the mid-20th century, but today it is thriving on the proceeds of kung fu-related tourism.

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