In the Autumn of 1612, rumors came to Nurhaci’s ears that a daughter of his, Lady Onje, had been shot with bone-tipped arrows by a man named Bujantai, to whom she had been given in marriage. Bone-tipped arrows make a whistling noise when they fly, and to shoot someone with a bone-tipped arrow was a fairly dramatic form of public punishment.
According to the Manchu account, Lady Onje had committed no crime to deserve this punishment. Instead, rumor had it that Bujantai wanted to marry the daughter of Bujai of Yehe, so shooting Onje was apparently a part of dissolving his alliance with Nurhaci and re-establishing old ties with Yehe. This calculus was no doubt informed by the fact that Nurhaci lived beyond Yehe to the south, making former seem a less dangerous enemy than the latter.
The shooting of Lady Onje provoked Nurhaci’s anger not only because it was a direct attack on his flesh and blood, but also because he had spared Bujantai’s life in battle and felt he deserved his loyalty. Nurhaci gathered his troops and rode for the Amur river, on the far banks of which Bujantai’s walled city of Ula stood.
When they reached Ula, Nurhaci’s soldiers captured five or six towns on the south side of the river and burned their granaries, cutting off supplies to Ula in an effort to draw Bujantai out. Bujantai knew he was in trouble and delayed as long as he could (maybe hoping for reinforcements from Yehe), but eventually he saw no option other than to come out and face Nurhaci. He came in a boat to the middle of the river, and Nurhaci rode out into the water to meet him.
Bujantai groveled and begged Nurhaci to leave, but Nurhaci challenged him to explain his actions, saying:
mini jui ehe weile araci minde alanjicina. abka ci wasika aisin gioro halai niyalma de gala isika kooli be si tucibu. tanggū jalan be sarkū dere, juwan jalan ci ebsi si sarkū bio. mini aisin gioro halangga niyalma de gala isika kooli bici, bujantai si uru okini mini cooha jihengge waka mujangga.
If my child committed a crime, then I hope you will tell me. If there is a kooli for acting against a person of the Heaven Descended Aisin Gioro clan, then produce it! You may not know a hundred generations, but do you not know the last ten generations? If there is a kooli for acting against a person of my Aisin Gioro clan, then let you be found to be in the right, Bujantai, and my coming here with my soldiers will be deemed wrong indeed.
Here, Nurhaci is laying out two possible justifications for Bujantai’s shooting of Lady Onje, and challenging him to prove either one. In the first case, if Lady Onje had committed a crime, Bujantai could justify his actions by simply saying what the crime was. In the second case, if there were a kooli that would allow him to do something like this to a person of Nurhaci’s clan, he could produce it.
In later Manchu we find kooli equated to the Chinese term meaning lì 例, meaning “rule, norm, precedent, case.” This was not an especially important concept in Chinese law, but referred to a substatute that provided a very specific example of the implementation of a punishment for a crime, or else a previous decision by the Board of Punishments that could be used as a precedent for a later decision if there was no applicable law.
Among the Jurchens, however, there was no written code of law and no Board of Punishments, so kooli meant something very different to them than what it meant to later Manchus. Several clues to its original meaning can be seen in the event described above. While the existence of a mere crime would have allowed Bujantai to take action against Onje as an individual, it is implied that a kooli would have allowed him to take action against her as a member of her clan, putting him in the right (uru) and Nurhaci in the wrong (waka.) In order to produce the kooli, however, Bujantai would have had to call on a knowledge of history that might go back long before he, Nurhaci or Lady Onje were even born.
From this example, it seems that kooli was a concept that governed the idea of justice between clans and across generations. This would have made a knowledge of history important to the Jurchens, because the leader with the better knowledge of history would be better able to justify his actions against another clan.
However, since Jurchen histories would have been primarily oral, they would have been at a disadvantage when interacting with the Chinese, whose long written traditions would have given them more material to draw on. Nurhaci himself felt the bite of this in 1614 when the Wanli emperor sent a military official to him named Xiao Bozhi, bearing a letter to which he demanded that Nurhaci bow down. The exact content of the letter is not recorded in the Manchu history, except to say that:
hacin hacin i ehe gisun, julgei ufaraha jabšaha kooli be feteme hendume bithe arafi
A letter had been written, full of all kinds of wicked talk, and dredging up ancient kooli of success and failure.In this incident we see kooli associated with the ideas of success and failure, but this is not unrelated to its association with justice. In the Jurchen view, Heaven would reward those whom it deemed to be right with success, and punish those whom it deemed to be wrong with failure. For this reason, while a knowledge of history was important for justifying action against another clan, it was also critical for determining who would have the favor of Heaven in any resulting conflict.
The important connections between kooli and the study of history persisted after Nurhaci’s death. When a translation of the Jurchen Jīn history was undertaken in 1636, the office in charge of the project was called Kooli selgiyere yamun, the “Office for the Promulgation of Kooli.” In his preface to the Jīn history, the Grand Secretary of that office, a man named Hife, explained the importance of the study of history and kooli as follows:
julgei kooli suduri be tuwaci, jabšara ufarara weile asuru narhūn, taifin facuhūn i forgon ambula somishūn. damu enduringge niyalmai dabala, gūwa sarkū. tuttu ofi han niyalmai dasan yabun jabšaha ufaraha babe bithei niyalma yooni arahangge, ne be olhome ginggulekini. amaga be olhome alhūdakini sehengge kai.
When one looks at kooli and history, acts of success and failure are very subtle, and periods of peace and turmoil are quite obscure. Aside from divine people, others would not know of it. Therefore, literary people record all of the rules and deeds, successes and failures of kings and people, in order that those at the time should fearfully respect them, and those who come later should fearfully imitate them.