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Chinese Military History

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Shang Dynasty (1600BC~1046BC)

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Shang Dynasty (1600BC~1046BC)

From the perspective of military history, Chinese history divides naturally into three periods. The first of these is Ancient China, from earliest times to the end of the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.E.). Separating fact from later idealizations has long been the major challenge confronting students of this period, but certain things are clear about its military history: The major weapons system was the two-wheeled Bronze Age war chariot, and the aristocratic and “feudal” social order symbolized by the chariot remained the ideal for most Chinese intellectuals throughout the following imperial period.

The second period is Imperial China, which began militarily with the Legalist reforms in the state of Qin during the Warring States era (453-221 B.C.E.), reforms which Qin’s rivals adopted with less success. After conquering all of China, the Qin ruler and his advisors invented the title huangdi, translated as “emperor” and used by successive imperial dynasties until 1912. Elements of continuity and change in the history of Imperial China, and more detailed periodization within it, are discussed later, but the persistence of Confucian values, the Legalist state, and the military threat from the nomadic societies of Inner Asia throughout this long span of history point to the comparability of the many dynasties included therein.

The third period is Modern China, beginning with the defeat of the Qing (Manchu) empire in the Opium War (1839-1842) and continuing down to the present. In the military as in other areas, China’s efforts to respond to the West have led to drastic change, even as the continuing evolution of the major Western nations has made it difficult for other societies to catch up.


Ancient China during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1500-1045 B.C.E.), the Western Zhou (ca. 1045-770 B.C.E.), and the Spring and Autumn era was a Bronze Age society whose military expression was the war chariot with two spoked wheels. Commanded by an aristocratic archer, the chariot’s crew included a driver and sometimes a third person armed with a spear. While few believe the Shang were foreign conquerors, the place of the chariot in Shang culture is one aspect of the rapid diffusion of the war chariot throughout Eurasia in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. Archaeological study of Shang sites has revealed elaborate royal burials in which chariots and bronze weapons were interred along with human and animal sacrifices. Despite these rich details, most aspects of military and social organization during the Shang remain uncertain.

The overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou introduced the worship of Heaven (tian) and the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) as the basis of political legitimacy. A feudal social order, resting militarily on a class of aristocratic chariot warriors (shi), is present from the beginning in authentic Western Zhou sources; it is not certain whether this was new or inherited from the Shang. During the Western Zhou the king (wang) ruled through his “Six Armies” of chariots, assigning territories to the feudal lords (zhuhou) to govern as fiefs. To emphasize his own authority, the king often transferred individual lords from fief to fief. The book Rituals of Zhou (Zhouli) and other later sources, mostly compiled in the third century B.C.E., describe in exact but unverifiable detail the offices, ceremonies, land system, and other aspects of the Western Zhou regime. These institutions had by then come to represent the moral and political ideal for the Confucian school of political philosophy. According to the Rituals of Zhou, each chariot was associated with five squads (wu) of five infantrymen to form a platoon (liang). Four platoons made a company (zu), five companies a brigade (lü), five brigades a division (shi), and five divisions an army (jun) of 12,500 infantry and 500 chariots, the highest level of the hierarchy. Whether or not this really existed in the Western Zhou, the model was emulated again and again, most recently in the twentieth century when it influenced the nomenclature for military units of modern Chinese armies.

The Western Zhou ends with the move of the Zhou kings to Luoyang after a military catastrophe in the west. In the following Spring and Autumn era the kings are much weaker and the feudal lords correspondingly stronger. Old proprieties still exist, but are growing weaker. The Commentary of Zuo (Zuozhuan), the principal source for this period, provides much detail as it deplores these trends. It also describes, often vividly, the wars and battles among the feudal lords. The chariot continues to be the major weapon, and the activities of the chariot-mounted shi class receive the most attention, even if infantry are assumed to be present. Battles are preceded by rituals and moralizing speeches, and it is thought to be proper to allow the enemy to deploy fully before attacking him. During the Spring and Autumn period warfare continued to be stylized and ceremonial even as it grew more violent and decisive within these parameters, as the military hegemon (ba) and his “way of force” (badao) came to dominate Chinese society.

The destruction of the state of Jin inaugurated the Warring States era, in which great social and political change was accompanied by the end of the system of chariot warfare and the adoption of new military forms. The ritual and ceremony that had been a principle of Spring and Autumn warfare was replaced by an emphasis on deception, treachery, and stratagems whose sole moral justification was victory. This approach to warfare is codified in Sunzi’s Art of War and the other military classics from this period, a body of work always considered morally dubious by later Confucian intellectuals.

The heightened intensity and ruthlesness of warfare in the Warring States was matched by changes in weapons and the composition of armies. Chariots disappeared and cavalry was adopted, despite the cultural challenge this posed for robe-wearing Chinese men. But most of the Warring States armies were composed mainly of infantry conscripts, equipped with iron swords, iron-tipped spears, and, most important, crossbows, whose intricate trigger mechanisms required a high level of metalworking skill. The thousands of terracotta soldier statues guarding the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, are arranged in precise formations and grouped according to type of weapon, a large percentage being crossbowmen. The conventions of Chinese historiography are such that this sort of detailed deployment information is not presented for the many battles described in the standard dynastic histories.

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The military history of Imperial China before the nineteenth-century Western impact shows considerable variation from period to period, depending on changing historical circumstances and the differing social bases of successive dynasties. It also shows continuity related to the persistence of the major cultural factors that came together in the Han period. These cultural factors include Confucianism, the Legalist state, and hostility to the nomads of Inner Asia. All three of these emerged individually during the Warring States period that preceded the Qin unification, but should be viewed analytically as part of Imperial China.


Chinese society is sometimes called “Confucian society,” and its dynasties variants of the “Confucian state.” While these formulations have been challenged, they indicate something of basic importance: Formal histories and other literary works are the chief sources for Chinese history, including military history, and they are composed overwhelmingly from a viewpoint that can properly be called Confucian. For the ancient period, the Chinese classics generally believed to have the most historical content (such as the Zuozhuan, Shujing, and Zhouli) survive because of selection (sometimes aided by fabrication) by later Confucians, and the standard histories, from their beginnings in Han times to the 1739 Ming History (the twenty-fourth of the standard histories and the last to be compiled under dynastic rule), all were the work of historians who saw themselves explicitly as Confucians. Often the historians were major political figures as well. Whatever the contribution of Confucius himself, the Confucian canon as understood in later times seems to have been shaped during the Warring States period under the guidance of Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.). The explicit adoption of Confucianism as official ideology, and the composition by Sima Tan and Sima Qian of the Historical Records (Shiji), the first of the standard histories, were major developments in the long reign of Han Wudi (141-87 B.C.E.).

Confucian doctrine saw war as a necessary evil. Military force had to be used to resist invasion, suppress rebellion, and reunify China after periods of division. Confucian officials were not reluctant to use military power on such occasions; indeed, one recent study argues that force was the preferred option when circumstances were right. The military skills of chariotry and archery were two of the six skills of a Confucian gentleman. Yet when Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military tactics, Confucius denied any knowledge of the subject, and he left the next day (Analects 15.1). The ideal was the monarch who had received the Mandate of Heaven because of his virtue and who ruled through ritual and moral example. War was necessary because barbarians and “petty people” (xiaoren) among the Chinese could not be ruled through such ideal means. Understandably, the Confucian tradition had no place for the ideas of conquest, expansion, and imperial rule over subject peoples that were driving forces in, for example, Roman and Ottoman Turkish history. Emperors who seemed to enjoy war and conquest too much were usually opposed by their officials and/or condemned by history (examples include Qin Shi Huangdi, Han Wudi, Sui Yangdi, Tang Taizong, and Ming Yongle), while emperors who decisively moved from war to peace, and from military (wu) to civil (wen) values (such as Han Gaozu and Song Taizu) were correspondingly praised. Nor, as the aftermath of the early Ming naval expeditions demonstrates, was there ever any prospect of commerce-driven overseas colonial expansion, even though Ming China had both the economic development and the nautical technology to be a major player in the creation of colonial empires through seapower had Confucian values permitted such activity.

The Legalist State

Confucian values gained unchallenged dominance within Chinese education and society during the reign of Han Wudi and held this dominance for the rest of the history of Imperial China. Nonetheless, the state that Confucian-educated officials administered originated in an environment hostile to Confucianism, the expansionist Qin regime of the Warring States period. Legalist thinkers from Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) to Li Si (d. 208 B.C.E.), both of whom were Qin prime ministers, held that people should be socially regimented, bureaucratically administered, rewarded only for success in war and agriculture, punished for the slightest transgressions, and subject to the absolute will of the ruler. The goal of the Legalist thinkers and the purpose of organizing the state in this way was to permit Qin to defeat, conquer, and absorb its rivals, a process completed with the conquest of all China in 230-221 B.C.E. Qin fell soon afterward and Legalism was discredited and blamed for its fall, but the autocratic, bureaucratic, centralized empire that Qin Legalism had created remained the master institution of Chinese political life for the next two thousand years, and its restoration was always the primary goal of Chinese political actors during periods of dynastic breakdown. Officials of successive dynasties thus had the means to raise tax revenues and to mobilize the population for war or for labor service to a degree that was unusual for a preindustrial society. Military activities might have been dysfunctional for various reasons, but most dynasties were capable of formidable military efforts.

The Northern Nomads

In theory, China was the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo), bordered by different kinds of “barbarians” in each of the four primary directions. In reality, the successive nomadic and seminomadic peoples living in the steppe and desert environments of Mongolia and Manchuria have been the most significant “barbarians” in Chinese military history. Three of the directional terms for “barbarians” (yi, rong, and di) and a common general term for foreigners (hu, also often translated as “barbarian”) usually refer to Inner Asian nomadic or seminomadic peoples. The Xiongnu, Türks, Kitan, and Mongols all practiced largely nomadic ways of life, while the Xianbi and their Jurchen and Manchu successors combined nomadism with agriculture to a degree that facilitated their rule over Chinese populations. The Mongols and Manchus both conquered all of China and ruled it for long periods, and both Mongol- and Manchu-language sources show us ruling elites animated by ideals of war and conquest that often diverged from Confucian values. Similar ideals motivated the elites of the other peoples mentioned, though we know of them largely through Chinese sources. While the Xianbi, Kitan, and Jurchen did not conquer all of China, they each established durable dynasties of conquest over substantial Chinese populations.

All of these non-Chinese peoples were formidable because their male populations of military age were all warriors bred to the saddle and trained in the mounted archer mode of fighting that dominated Inner Asia. This threat emerged during the Warring States period. Chinese reactions included the building by the border states of Zhao and Yan of walls that were the precursors of the Qin wall, and the adoption of cavalry by King Wuling of Zhao in 307 B.C.E. after a culturally charged debate: Riding on horseback involved adopting elements of Inner Asian dress, including trousers. All succeeding dynasties made extensive use of cavalry. This is most obvious in the regimes founded by Inner Asian peoples, but those of Chinese origin also went to great efforts to maintain mounted forces. This included maintaining stud farms for horses in the border areas, recruiting ethnically Chinese cavalry forces whose training was modeled on that of the nomads, recruiting troops directly from the Inner Asian peoples, and establishing (with much reluctance) commercial relations in which tea and other Chinese goods were traded for horses.

Change over time during the long history of Imperial China is more subtle than the continuities. Chinese historians have usually emphasized the cyclical nature of their history, with its repeated establishment and overturning of the “Mandate of Heaven.” Nevertheless, close study reveals long-term changes in many areas. In the military sphere these include the perceptions and positions of the educated elite, military officers and soldiers, personnel and institutions of non-Chinese origin, and weapons and military technology.

The Educated Elite

Over the long history of Imperial China the educated elite official class increasingly came to see itself as purely “civil,” leaving military functions to be performed by others. In the Han (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and the Six Dynasties (220-589), a successful official career might include provincial governorships and other positions having direct command of troops. In the Tang (618-907) this could still happen, but the civil and military positions were more sharply distinguished, and the An Lushan rebellion (from 755) was preceded by a personnel policy of placing only professional soldiers in command of troops. The An Lushan rebellion began a long period of dynastic weakness, followed by division during the Five Dynasties (907-960), and educated opinion blamed China’s problems on the militarism of the standing armies and the barbarian generals prominent within them. During the Song (960-1279) strong antimilitary attitudes became dominant within the educated elite, which largely avoided political involvement during the period of Mongol rule that followed. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912), the civil and military chains of command were sharply differentiated, and even when civil officials had military responsibilities, they exercised them by giving orders to the military officers who actually led the troops. Meanwhile, the lifestyle of the educated elite emphasized separation from manual labor and other forms of physical activity, including warfare.

Military Officers and Soldiers

Over the long run of Imperial China, the military service obligation of the general population evolved from being nearly universal, as in the Qin and Han, to a burden imposed on a minority. While both the Tang fubing system and the Ming weisuo system employed the principle of soldier-farmers liable to conscription, in both dynasties this principle applied only to a minority of the population. In the Tang fubing membership seems to have been seen as a benefit in the early reigns of the dynasty, later evolving into a burden, while in the Ming weisuo membership seems to have been viewed as a burden from the beginning. In the Song the troops of the standing army were poorly paid and used for menial work, while military officer status was conferred on many officials doing low-level work disdained by true scholar-officials. Coupled with the hypertrophy of “civil” values among the educated elite, these attitudes and patterns of treatment led to the denigration of soldiers (including officers), noticeable from Song times onward and expressed in the often-quoted saying, “Good iron isn’t used for nails; good men aren’t used as soldiers.” Occasional efforts of civil officials to revive the militia ideal of classical antiquity seldom worked as intended.

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“Barbarian” Personnel and Institutions

The influence of foreign examples on dynastic military institutions expanded. One would expect this of the various non-Chinese dynasties of conquest, which arose, after all, because Inner Asian peoples and their military institutions prevailed in warfare. Yet the Sui-Tang fubing military system was the lineal descendant of similar institutions in the redoubtably barbarbian Western Wei of the Tuoba Xianbi, while the Ming weisuo system continued the essential features of the Yuan military system, itself an imposition of Mongol tribal patterns on a part of the Chinese population. This leaves the Song unique among the later dynasties of Chinese origin in that its military institutions were not directly derived from a non-Chinese model. These long-term changes culminated in the Manchu Qing dynasty, with its co-opted Chinese civilian elite, its Green Standard Army of Chinese troops, and its banner forces organized on Inner Asian models. By the time of the Opium War the Qing military was in decline, but in the two previous centuries the Qing changed China’s military frame of reference permanently by incorporating Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. On the eve of the new challenge represented by Western ideas and British sea power, the Qing had solved the enduring threat of invasion by the nomadic peoples of the north.

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Weapons and Military Technology

China has been an “advanced” country, in comparison to its contemporaries, through most of recorded history, losing ground only after the Industrial Revolution began in Britain. The major innovations in weaponry that influenced Western military history have their counterparts in China. Any list would include the crossbow, armor, the stirrup, fortifications, gunpowder weapons, and shipbuilding.

In the Qin and Han conscript armies, infantry and cavalry replaced chariots as the principal arm, and the infantry were armed with spears, bows, and in particular crossbows (nu), a weapon in whose technology the Chinese remained superior. Later descriptions of Chinese armies usually include units of archers mixed with crossbowmen, the latter presumably needing protection between rounds due to their longer reloading time. The intricate trigger latch mechanism of the crossbow was a closely guarded state secret under the Han. Battle accounts (too often, unfortunately, influenced by literary conventions) often mention the sky being darkened by clouds of arrows. Evidence for the actual conduct of battles is sketchy, but discharges of arrows (including crossbow bolts) were crucial to victory. Even though infantry bearing shields, swords, and spears existed, there is no trace of either a “phalanx” or a “legion” style of infantry fighting.

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb army is wearing armor, and there are many later representations of armored Chinese soldiers. Most of the armor is of the lamellar variety, in which overlapping leather or metal plates of varying size are laced together. Such armor is relatively light and flexible at the expense of protective strength, and in the West infantry and cavalry trained for shock tactics and reliance on edged weapons tended to move on to armor composed at least partly of large plates, of which there are a few Chinese examples.

The idea that the stirrup, by permitting the evolution of shock cavalry armed with the lance, was a primary factor in the creation of European feudalism has received a surprising degree of credence, though recent reevalution of the four-horned Roman saddle has undermined its central thesis. In China the spread of the stirrup is associated with the development of the armored cavalryman, mounted on an armored (barded) horse and armed with a lance. Literary references to “armored cavalry” occur as late as the Tang, and a vivid pictorial representation of mounted warriors looking like European knights occurs in a tomb dated to 357 c.E. Nevertheless, it may be stated with confidence that the social outcomes attributed to the stirrup in Europe did not occur in China. Knight-like cavalry were part of the ruling class of north China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. This class, which evolved into the governing aristocracy of the Sui and Tang, was largely Xianbi in origin but also included other Inner Asian peoples and Chinese who had adopted barbarian ways. Far from devolving into feudalism, the Sui and Tang dynasties erected a powerful and enduring version of the centralized, bureaucratic empire previously built by the Qin and Han. And, stirrupped or not, the cavalry future belonged to the Inner Asian warrior whose strength was his skill with the bow rather than the lance.

China has always been a country of cities rather than castles, and city walls were not only a means of defense but also a symbol of the city’s status in the hierarchy of rule. The walls were formidable defenses. While there are many recorded examples of long sieges and much literature on siege-craft, it remained the case that the best way to take a city was by treachery or surprise during a period of confusion, and a siege was more likely to be won by protracted blockade than by a successful assault. China’s urban fortifications did not evolve the low, relatively cannon-proof bastions of the trace italienne, as European cities did in the sixteenth century while China lived peacefully under the rule of the Ming. Afterward, the thick earthen walls of the major Chinese cities remained highly resistant to the gunpowder weapons that were becoming more prominent in Chinese warfare.

The basic formula for gunpowder was known to the Song, weapons incorporating gunpowder were used prominently during the Yuan, and in the Ming Yongle reign (1402-1424) a special headquarters was established in Beijing to coordinate the training of gunners. Firearms added to the defensive strength of the Great Wall, itself a Ming creation, and the Chinese element of the Manchu banner system seem to have been valued, in part, as artillery specialists. However, we cannot discern a “gunpowder revolution” in Chinese military history. In the Ming, Qi Jiguang’s successful and widely emulated military organization had gunners serving alongside bowmen, swordsmen, and spearmen in the same primary (squad-level) formations, and in the Qing Zeng Guofan’s Hunan Army battalions combined newer and older weapons in the same way. Firearms originated in China, but in China they remained just another missile weapon. One does not see efforts to standardize manufacture, reduce the number of calibers, or create new tactics and organizations to exploit the potential of a new weapons system.

Marco Polo’s descriptions of Chinese ships were part of his credibility problem in Europe, and Europeans also found it difficult to credit the early Ming naval voyages. It is now accepted that China built wooden ships as large or larger than any ever built in Europe, and, having invented the compass, navigated them beyond the sight of land to Africa and other distant coasts. But these capabilities did not add up to a navy; in the latter part of the Ming and in the Qing, China’s seagoing forces consisted of small ships and boats tethered to the military organizations of specific provinces.

China’s long history of technological progress provides scant comfort for theories that see certain kinds of social and political change as the inevitable result of specific technologies. Neither the stirrup nor gunpowder had the dramatic consequences in China claimed for them in Europe. With respect to shipbuilding technology, Ming China’s withdrawal from the sea was deliberate and dramatic, and had long-lasting consequences. It compares to Tokugawa Japan’s “giving up the gun.” In both cases, ruling establishments feared and prevented technology-driven change.

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Military Institutions

Within the context of the factors of continuity and change already discussed, we may see three broad (and partly overlapping) subperiods in the evolution of Imperial China’s military institutions and practices, each of which transcends any single dynasty, and each of which came to an end due to a crisis of Chinese civilization involving the two basic military threats: domestic rebellion and foreign invasion. The first subperiod is bounded by the rise of Qin in the Warring States and the end of the last of the Six Dynasties in 589 C.E., the second by the consolidation of the Northern Wei in the fifth century and the final Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279, and the third by the Kitan conquest of part of north China in the tenth century and the fall of the imperial system as a whole in the twentieth century. We will label these subperiods Han, Tang, and Mongol-Manchu.

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Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 9)


The two Han dynasties continued to employ the cadre-conscript army developed by the state of Qin during the Warring States, just as they continued the bureaucratic system and other Qin institutions. Similarly, the military systems of the Three Kingdoms, the ephemeral Western Jin (265-316), and the later south China regimes collectively called the Six Dynasties evolved from the Later Han state of affairs in which rival warlords controlled armies of dependent soldiers (buqu).

The career and reforms of Shang Yang (d. 338 B.C.E.) in Qin are described in a hostile and caricatured way in the sources, but they converted Qin permanently into the strongest of the seven warring states well over a century before the final Qin conquest of China. Shang Yang abolished hereditary status and created a new set of “titles of nobility” (jue) that could be conferred on any male subject, but only for success in war or agriculture. The population was organized in mutual responsibility groups and governed by officials who could not be natives of the areas they governed. These officials were rewarded (or punished) strictly for their success (or failure) in carrying out their orders. The other states contemporary with Qin undertook less comprehensive and less successful reforms, but Qin retained the leadership that Shang Yang’s reforms had conferred. Qin’s greatest general, Bai Qi (d. 257 B.C.E.), made it a deliberate policy to massacre the armies of the states he defeated in order to maintain Qin’s comparative advantage.

While the first Han emperor made a great show of moderating the severity of Qin laws and experimented with a limited revival of feudalism, in the end the Han continued most Qin institutions, including the Qin military system. For most people conscription was the most important element of that system. Men were drafted for two years, serving as infantry, cavalry, or sailors according to their background. For a small minority this meant service in the capital, and for a larger minority service along the walled defenses of the northern frontier, whose operation in Han times is understood in unusual detail from surviving contemporary documents. Most conscripts seem to have served their time within their native province (jun, “commandery”), whose governor (taishou, literally “grand defender”) was also their commander in case of invasion. The founding of the Han coincided closely with the unification of the Xiongnu under Maodun, and Han Wudi’s resort to war against the Xiongnu is associated with the creation of specialist cavalry forces that could fight in the Xiongnu manner, most famously by Huo Qubing (d. 117 B.C.E.). But Wudi’s wars against the Xiongnu and his annexations of territory in Korea, south China, and Vietnam were made possible by the mobilization of large numbers of mostly infantry troops, and this capacity was retained under his successors.

Guangwudi (r. 25-57), the founding emperor of the Later Han, lightened the military burden by eliminating the annual summer mobilization of the reservists. The Later Han maintained military pressure on the Xiongnu, and finally broke them up for good. Except for the adventures of Ban Chao (d. 102) in the Western Regions (now Xinjiang), which were a classic example of indirect rule maintained by locally recruited troops, the Later Han was not committed to territorial expansion. Despite coups and conflicts in Luoyang, relative peace prevailed in the provinces, along with increasing concentration of landownership. When the Later Han confronted its major military crisis, the Yellow Turban rebellion (from 184), the fastest way to mobilize large armies was to recruit among the dependent clients of already powerful notables; a breakdown to war-lordism followed quickly.

Cao Cao (155-220) was the most successful of these warlords, and his descendants were the rulers of Wei, the most powerful of the Three Kingdoms. His rivals founded Shu-Han (221-263, in Sichuan) and Wu (formally 229-280, at Nanjing). The Jin dynasty of Sima Yi and his descendants ended the Three Kingdoms and briefly ruled over a reunified China. After the rebellions and invasions of the early fourth century, the Jin ruled south China from Nanjing until 420, where four more Chinese dynasties followed until 589.

Many scholars believe that under these dynasties peasants were reduced to the status of serfs, and that armies also were composed of soldiers who were unfree dependents (buqu). While some of this theorizing is in the service of a Marxist periodization of Chinese history, it is very clear from the histories of these dynasties that a warlord pattern had developed: For whatever reason, soldiers were at the disposal of their generals, and central authority was correspondingly fragile. While expressions of disdain for soldiers can be found in the literature of the period, many eminent literary figures also exercised high military command, and the warlord founders of two dynasties (Liu-Song and Liang) had sons who compiled major literary collections (Liu Yiqing and Xiao Tong, compilers of the Shishuo xinyu and the Wenx-uan, respectively). The Sui conquest of Nanjing ended this line of evolution.

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Tang Dynasty (618–907)


In 493 Tuoba Hong, the Northern Wei emperor posthumously titled Xiaowendi, played a trick on his Xianbi clan leaders. Pretending to lead them in an invasion of south China, he instead made them stop at the still impressive ruins of Luoyang, the capital of the Later Han and Western Jin, which he made his own capital. North China had been overrun early in the fourth century by various Inner Asian peoples who displayed an uncharacteristic hostility to Chinese civilization. After the disorders of this period, the brief stabilization of the Northern Wei in the fifth century as the first of the important “dynasties of conquest” begins the second period of military evolution. The Northern Wei created early forms of the equal field (juntian) land system and the fubing military system that became major institutions under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Most important, the Northern Wei attempted to create a society in which the military skills of the Xianbi would be complemented by bureaucratic and literary skills of the Chinese educated elite. Later dynasties of conquest made the same attempt, and in military matters Inner Asian influence was important even in dynasties (Sui, Tang, Ming) usually considered Chinese.

After the breakup of the Northern Wei, Yuwen Tai (505-556) and his descendants ruled the northwest first through puppet emperors of Western Wei and then as emperors of the Northern Zhou, and there both the soldier-farmer (fubing) military system and the mixed Chinese and Inner Asian Guanzhong aristocracy that commanded it evolved to provide military means and leaderhip for the Sui and Tang empires. The Yuwen rulers were not of Chinese origin, while the Sui founder and the father of the Tang founder were married to sisters from the Xiongnu Dugu clan. By the end of the sixth century, surnames within the Guanzhong aristocracy did not indicate purely Chinese or Inner Asian ancestry because of intermarriage, and similarly the fubing soldiers included elements capable of fighting on foot or on horseback. Under the fubing system each headquarters (fu) commanded about one thousand farmer-soldiers who could be mobilized for war. In peacetime they were self-sustaining on their land allotments, and were obliged to do tours of active duty in the capital. These tours were usually one month long (two months for the most distant units), and their frequency depended on the distance of each unit from the capital. The fubing soldiers permitted the Sui and Tang founders to conquer China, but attempts at foreign conquest were less consistently successful. Obsessive efforts to subdue the Korean kingdom of Koguryo ultimately cost the second Sui emperor his throne and his life. Tang Taizong (r. 626-649) fought both Türks and Tibetans to peace on favorable terms, but failed to overcome Koguryo. That goal was accomplished by his son Gaozong (r. 649-683), though the final winner was not Tang China but its ally, the southern Korean kingdom of Silla, which succeeded in unifying the entire peninsula under its own rule. Japan, which had supported Paekche, the third Korean kingdom, was alarmed by these developments and responded by imitating the fubing and other Tang institutions in the Taika reforms.

Most of the fubing units were located in the northwest, and the system was best suited for the annual campaigning cycle of an expanding empire. Under Empress Wu (r. 684-705) the fubing system declined, and under Xuanzong (r. 712-756) a standing army stationed on the northern frontier evolved in its place. This army reached a strength of half a million men and eighty thousand horses by the 740s. Its Chinese personnel included many men displaced by economic changes since the founding of the Tang, and its non-Chinese personnel included Koreans, Kitan, Türks, and Sogdians. The new standing army thus preserved the Chinese-Inner Asian mixture characteristic of the early Tang, but the old Guanzhong aristocracy ceased to have much involvement with it and its higher ranks came to be filled from within. Having accepted the decline to uselessness of the fubing system, the Tang court had no central army to resist the An Lushan rebellion, and could only counter it by appealing to other frontier commanders whose social background was similar to An Lushan’s and who could move swiftly from loyalty to rebellion when their autonomy was challenged. Despite impressive successes by the court, the pattern of regional warlordism continued until the fall of Tang. While the replacement of the fubing system with the standing army was a major discontinuity in China’s military development, this discontinuity occurred in a period of peace as a result of a deliberate policy decision of the Tang government. While it led to disorder, it was not caused by defeat.

Recognizing the need for a central army as a counterweight to the troops of the regional warlords, the post-An Lushan Tang emperors created the Divine Strategy (Shence) Armies, whose eunuch commanders grew increasingly powerful as the Tang declined. The Privy Council or Bureau of Military Affairs (Shumiyuan), originally a eunuch agency, was taken over by generals during the Five Dynasties (907-960), while continuing to command the central armies (jinjun, qinjun) at the personal disposal of the emperors. The Five Dynasties were politically unstable, each ending in a violent overthrow, but they were militarily successful, since the territory ruled from Luoyang expanded and the troops were increasingly concentrated in the central armies.

The Song founder continued this system, making modifications in the interest of political stability. He retired his principal generals, turned the Bureau of Military Affairs into a department controlled by civil officials, and moved the capital to Kaifeng to make supply via the Grand Canal easier. The chain of command over the central army troops concentrated in the capital area was changed regularly to prevent any general from developing a dangerous personal ascendancy over a particular body of troops. Under the first three Song emperors, the army was efficient enough to reunify the south Chinese states (the Ten Kingdoms) with the empire, but was not strong enough to destroy the two states ruled by Inner Asian peoples (Tangut Xixia and Kitan Liao) that together dominated the northern frontier. The long-term trend in the Northern Song was for the central army to become larger and more expensive, while its soldiers became poorer and less capable militarily and its civilian administrators more intrusive and abusive. The relative ease with which the Jurchen Jin conquered Kaifeng and the rest of north China illustrated the decay to the Song military system. The Hangzhou-based Southern Song depended militarily on an exiguous combination of warlord-led improvised armies and naval power (exercised along the Yangzi as well as on the ocean). The execution of Yue Fei, the most prominent of the warlords, restored political stability even as it dimmed the hope of reconquering the north. When the Mongols completed the destruction of the Southern Song in the 1270s, they ended both the much-discussed “early modern” economic developments of the Song and the continuous line of military evolution that had begun in the Northern Wei.

老外眼中的中国军事史 - 海交史 - 9

Ming Dynasty (1368~1644)


While the Mongol conquest of the Song might be seen as the beginning of the third period of evolution, in fact the Mongols derived both ideas and personnel from their Kitan and Jurchen predecessors in the conquest of north China. Both of these dynasties organized their tribal populations into military units that were also social organizations, and employed the decimal system as the partial basis for this organization (in the Jin meng’an-mouke system, the meng’an is an obvious cognate for the Mongolian mingghan, or “thousand”). Both dynasties also assigned troops to princely appanages (ordo, whence the English “horde”), and made these a vital part of their military systems. In general the Kitans welcomed Mongol rule, and many Jurchens came to accept it; both nations collaborated in the further Mongol conquest of China.

After his elevation in 1206 but before his invasions of north China, Chinggis (Genghis) Khan organized his Mongolian population on a tribal military basis. Every warrior, with his family and possessions, was assigned to a particular unit and forbidden to leave it on pain of death. Both the military obligation and the specific rank within the unit were hereditary. The units were decimal: tumen (ten thousand), mingghan, jaghun (hundred), and arban (ten). The Mongols also imposed this system of decimal organization and hereditary obligation and status on their Chinese soldiers.

The succeeding Ming dynasty (1368-1644) originated in rebellion against the Mongols, but they derived their own soldier-farmer (weisuo) system from the Mongol model, even though they compared it explicitly to the Tang fubing system. Hereditary military personnel were assigned military colony lands to cultivate under the direction of hereditary military officers, and armies for active service were mobilized from this pool of theoretically ready personnel. In a process somewhat resembling the history of the Tang military, the Ming weisuo system also evolved into a recruiting agency for a standing army based on the northern frontier, whose military efficacy was based on the spread of firearms technology and, later, on the building of the Great Wall.

In the early seventeenth century Nurhachi and his successor organized the Manchu—formerly Jurchen—people into a military system, the Eight Banners, that had Inner Asian roots traceable to the Mongols and their predecessors, but was also influenced by Ming institutions of direct rule over Jurchen tributary people. The main theme continued to be hereditary enrollment in specific units. Before the Manchus conquered China proper, they organized some conquered Chinese and Mongols into the Chinese and Mongol Eight Banners. As with the Yuan dynasty’s military forces at their height, the banner forces combined Inner Asian cavalry skills with Chinese abilities in engineering and firearms to create a military power that neither a purely Inner Asian nor a purely Chinese society could resist.

The Manchu conquest of China was aided by the defection of Ming armies, elements of which the Manchus organized into their Green Standard Army (liiying), the other half of the Manchu military system. The military ranks and other terminology of the Green Standard forces can mostly be traced to the standing army of the middle and late Ming. Eventually outnumbering the banner forces, the Green Standard troops played an important part in the Qing conquest of south China. Thay also provided the personnel for Qing naval forces, whose signal success was the conquest and incorporation of Taiwan in 1683. As the Qianlong reign (1736-1795) ended, the variety of military forces at the disposal of the Qing dynasty, all of which were derived by various paths from the Yuan, seemed to have answered conclusively all of the military challenges posed by the history of Imperial China. Internal order was secure. The nomadic threat had been ended by the conquest and inclusion within the Qing empire of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. And the annexation of Taiwan had deprived seagoing pirates and smugglers of their main base off the Chinese coast.