The Early Tang: Challenges and Successes
Seizing on the Sui disasters, Li Yüan, a high-ranking Sui general, rose against the emperor and went on to establish the Tang dynasty. The men under his command on the day of his revolt totaled roughly 30,000, both infantry and cavalry. Like many of the generals who hoped to replace the Sui, he was able to enlist the aid of several thousand Turkish cavalrymen. By the time Li Yüan had captured the city of Changan, which was proclaimed the Tang capital, he had picked up an additional 200,000 men. Many of these were men who had deserted the Sui army during and after the disastrous Korean campaigns. Li Yüan divided this force into twelve divisions, each led by a trusted general, for there was still much fighting to come before China was securely in Tang hands.
These were true divisions, expected to be able to operate on their own with a full complement of various types of weapons and soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. In addition, the soldiers were allotted lands on which their families were to be settled. The production of these lands was to make the divisions self-sufficient in supplies, an institutional continuation of the Northern Wei and Sui military systems. Like the Sui founder, Li Yüan and his son and successor, Li Shimin, understood the importance of pacifying both China and the lands to the north. This was why Li Yüan took such care to settle large numbers of his soldiers on lands near to the steppes. Li Shimin, better known by his reign title of Tang Taizong, was particularly successful at this, using both military and diplomatic strategies to become not only emperor of the Chinese but Qaghan (essentially, “Emperor”) of the Turks as well.
Unlike members of the traditional ruling classes of southern China, but like Tang Taizong, many of the leading figures of the early decades of the Tang were very comfortable with steppe traditions such as hunting and the relative freedom of women-a result of the intermingling of Chinese and nomadic peoples during the period of disunion. Applying this knowledge, Taizong took advantage of disunion among the various steppe tribes to insinuate himself into their politics and feuds. The result was that many of the nomadic tribes became an arm of the Tang military system. Taizong thus solved-at least for a time-the main problem plaguing Chinese armies since the Zhou period: the lack of horses, needed to create a credible cavalry arm. The nomads made up the bulk of the Tang cavalry during the reign of Taizong, and they were called on at times to assist in his campaigns for the consolidation of Tang rule within China proper. Those few times steppe tribes refused to heed his orders, he sent Tang armies, aided by other steppe cavalry, to bring them to heel.
Taizong was accepted due to his adaptation to steppe traditions, especially his knowledge of steppe politics and military tactics. Frequently, he led his soldiers in person, often when outnumbered by enemy forces, reportedly having four horses shot out from under him during the course of his campaigns. He was also acquainted with the steppe military tactic of the feigned retreat, adapting this tactic successfully from its use with cavalry forces to use with primarily infantry forces.
Later Tang emperors were unable to maintain the sort of personal authority that was necessary to control the steppe nomads. But nomadic internal rivalries allowed the Tang dynasty to keep its northern frontier fairly secure for a few decades after Taizong’s death. Even after Tang control on the frontiers weakened later in the eighth century, the dynasty could often call on nomadic armies for assistance. But Tibetan invasions and the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-eighth century, coupled with ongoing transformations of the Chinese economy and society, would finally destroy the almost symbiotic system of nomadic cavalry alongside settled Chinese infantry.
The Tang Army
The Fubing System The Tang dynasty, especially from the time of Tang Taizong, consciously worked to create a system whereby the dynasty was primarily defended by citizen-soldiers. Like the Han dynasty, the Tang was suspicious of large professional armies, believing that skilled professionals were much harder to control or to keep loyal than an army composed of free citizens. The Tang also believed that some skilled professionals were necessary, especially for the expeditions the dynasty planned in both the north and south and as a mobile strike force. As we have seen, the cavalry arm was primarily made up of nomadic horsemen who could be both used as a buffer and called on to assist in military expeditions. In the next section, we will discuss the skilled professional force that was kept near the capital. In this section, we will focus on the large forces of citizen-soldiers called the Fubing Army.
The term Fubing has been translated in various ways, the most common being “militia.” This is not satisfactory. Militia usually refers to men who are soldiers only part-time or part of the year; the rest of the time, they engage in their primary occupation. The members of the Fubing, however, were primarily professional soldiers, members of a standing army who spent all or nearly all of the year in military units, training or engaging in security duties.
The confusion in meaning comes from how the Fubing were recruited, and, sometimes, the Chinese sources from the Tang period are themselves unclear as to what the functions of the Fubing were. Nonetheless, in tracing the evolution of the Fubing, we learn that in the early Tang, at least up until the end of the eighth century, it was the most effective part of the Tang military, maintaining the security of the Tang frontier and assisting in several of the early Tang military expeditions. The Fubing commanders were some of the best in the whole Tang military.
Li Yüan established the capital of Tang China at Changan, located in the Guanzhong Province. As we saw earlier, by this time, he had over 200,000 men in his command. Although more fi ghting would be necessary to establish control over the rest of China, Li Yüan needed to ensure that the northern frontier was secure. To that end, many of these soldiers and their families were settled in agricultural communities. When additional soldiers were needed for his armies, Li Yüan had these families furnish them, along with their equipment and weapons. As these communities were expected to be self-supporting, the Tang court was spared a large expense. When this system-obviously extensively copied from the Sui military system-was expanded to include all ten of the provinces under Tang Taizong, the Tang had seemingly solved all three of the main Chinese military concerns. That is, there were military forces on the northern frontier to protect against nomadic threats; scattered military units were available for internal uses; and, because all these forces were self-supporting, there was little drain on imperial finances.
When the Fubing system was established, there were 623 communities, each with 800-1200 soldiers plus their families, making a total military force of well over 600,000. While the soldiers trained, their families were required to work their assigned lands, much as in the Sui and the Northern Wei earlier. But a key difference was that during the Tang dynasty, little private landownership was allowed in China, and all land was divided up according to a very complicated formula. This Equitable-Field system was implemented throughout the early Tang and was the basis for the Fubing military system. Those communities classifi ed as military were allotted a certain amount of land, which in the early decades of the Fubing system was quite large. In return for providing soldiers and supplying military needs, these communities were exempted from many taxes. Officers from the Imperial Guards in the capital were dispatched to the Fubing communities to oversee the administration of the lands and to lead the soldiers when necessary. This was to prevent local commanders from bonding too tightly with their men and gaining too much independent power, though lower-ranking officers usually came from within the ranks.
Recruitment was not by universal conscription, nor was it a strictly hereditary duty as under previous systems such as the Sui. Instead, roughly once every three years, officers of the Imperial Guards would circuit the Fubing communities and recruit, choosing on the basis of wealth, physical fitness, and number of adult males in a military household. Though the age of recruitment varied over time, generally a man was enlisted from age 20, and he would serve until age 60, when he could retire. Membership in the early decades was considered an honor, and those families with wealth and influence were able to get a higher proportion of their sons accepted. It is not clear how rigidly the physical requirements were enforced, but recruits were supposed to be in good health and were tested on physical strength. Those from frontier communities were also tested on their horsemanship.
After being accepted as a Fubing soldier, the new recruit and his family were expected to provide all of his rations, armor, and weapons. Groups of families were required to provide horses, mules, or oxen for use by the Fubing. This was a relatively cost-free way for the Tang to maintain a standing army, its only expense being the allocated land.
The three main duties of the Fubing were, in order of importance, garrison troops on the frontier, guardsmen in the capital area of Changan, and combat troops on expeditions. Local commanders of the Fubing were expressly forbidden to move their troops out of their camps without authorization from the court. There were exceptions in emergencies, but a commander who did move his men without prior approval had to notify the court immediately. Punishment for failing to follow these rules was exile or even death for the offending commander. Throughout the seventh century, the Fubing acquitted itself well along the frontiers and also maintained the Tang hold over the newly unified southern territories.
Guard duty in the capital area was considered a particularly important function of the Fubing by the Tang court. A complicated rotation system was devised to determine which Fubing units had guard duty and when. At any given time, there were tens of thousands of Fubing soldiers in various defensive positions in Changan and the immediate area. They were not the only military forces in the capital, but they were considered a check on the Palace Army that was supposedly the personal military force of the emperor.
Taking part in Tang military campaigns was the third duty of the Fubing. Rarely did the Fubing campaign on their own. Most often, they went into combat with large numbers of other Tang military units. The Korean campaigns, for example, were manned primarily by troops recruited from regions near Korea, but the Fubing were often the backbone of the expeditionary force. Also, an expeditionary force sent to subdue the kingdom of Nanchao (the present-day Chinese province of Yunnan) contained a large number of Fubing soldiers.
There is general agreement that through the 600s the Fubing were a competent, efficient military force that remained loyal to the Tang court. However, changes in Tang China’s economy and society in the early- to mid-eighth century led to the decline of the Fubing. The Equitable-Field system was without doubt the foundation of the Fubing military system, but in the early 700s, aristocratic families, government officials, religious orders, and others with influence were gaining effective private ownership of land. Many of the Fubing lands passed into private hands, and many military households saw their share of land reduced drastically. Service in the Fubing became less prestigious, and families increasingly saw classification as a military household as a burden and attempted various means to have their status changed to civilian. Many families attached themselves to Buddhist temples or religious orders as a quick way to relieve themselves of the burden of supplying the Fubing. Many others fled to newly reclaimed lands, becoming tenant-farmers or laborers on the lands of the wealthy in preference to service as a Fubing household, testament to how burdensome that service had become. Reports in the 740s told of massive desertions from the Fubing armies, at the same time that fierce Tibetan armies were raiding the northern and northwestern frontiers. The Fubing system was formally abolished in favor of a system of voluntary, recruited soldiers in 749.
The Palace Army In addition to the Fubing units that were expected to be composed of citizensoldiers, the Tang maintained a professional force at the capital of Changan, designed as the personal army of the emperor. This was the Palace Army, composed originally of those units used by Li Yüan in his revolt against the Sui dynasty. Often, this army is called the “Northern Army” because it was originally posted in a defensive position just north of Changan, as well as in the northern sector of the city. By Tang Taizong’s time, nearly all of the soldiers in this army were from noble or wealthy families located in the capital region.
At its height of effectiveness in the late seventh century, there were probably no more than 60,000 men in the Palace Army. In this early period, it was the core of Tang military strength and even included a cavalry element. Members of this army trained constantly together, and those who were tall and strong and showed ability at horse-archery were admitted to the cavalry, commanded mostly by specially recruited Turkish officers.
Other than some of the cavalry officers, most officers in the Palace Army came from the Imperial Guards. Indeed, most of the top Fubing officers were also Imperial Guardsmen. The Imperial Guards were recruited exclusively from the families of nobles and former high-ranking officials, and some have seen this as a modified version of the “hostage system” that had been used by the Han dynasty to maintain some measure of control over powerful families. As long as membership in the Imperial Guards was esteemed, there was a constant flow of competent, energetic officers for both the Palace Army and the Fubing. But by the late seventh century, the Imperial Guards- and therefore the Palace Army-had become involved in imperial succession struggles, and their effectiveness had diminished considerably.
The empress Wu (690-705) greatly expanded the Palace Army, enlisting men from outside the traditional recruiting grounds. This could have been an invigorating move that revitalized the military efficiency of the Palace Army; but, instead, a major unit of the Palace Army was used in 705 to depose the empress, and various other units later were frequently called on to assist in court intrigues. During the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion in 755, the Palace Army simply melted away as the rebel forces approached. Only 1000 of the supposedly elite force were left to accompany the emperor as he fled the capital.
The Decline of Tang Military Efficiency
New Frontier Armies Constant and growing threats from a newly unified Tibetan kingdom in the late seventh century demonstrated the increasing feebleness of the Fubing military system. The Tang relied to a large degree on their Uighur and Turkish nomadic allies, who by this time could no longer be considered even remotely under the control of Tang China. The Uighurs had been especially effective in assisting the Tang, but they did not come cheap. By the 670s, vast amounts of silk and other goods were necessary to buy Uighur assistance. When the payments slacked, the Uighurs would strike within China to exact payment and, since the Fubing garrisons were significantly weakened, their raids were often successful. To lessen reliance on the hired Uighur cavalry and protect the frontier, the Tang replaced the Fubing system with one of long-serving volunteer frontier armies, led by imperially appointed military governors possessing a good deal of civil as well as military authority.
For military encampments for these new troops, the Tang constructed massive fortresses across the three provinces that bordered the steppe frontier. The frontier fortresses were connected to and communicated with each other and the capital by post roads and beacon towers. In some cases, the fortresses were constructed on former Turkish territory. While the Turks were away in battle with tribes further west, the Tang army moved in swiftly to secure the area, constructing fortresses and denying the Turks some of their prime pasturelands. By the 720s, there were well over 65,000 soldiers with 15,000 horses stationed in Guanzhong alone, with comparable numbers in the adjoining two provinces.
This entailed an enormous expense, and, though the Tang was a fairly prosperous time in China’s history, this level of outlay proved difficult to maintain. Unlike the Fubing forces, these frontier armies were not self-supporting, nor could they be, with many of the soldiers posted relatively far north in lands less suited to settled agriculture. The difficulty of paying these forces prompted dangerous political arrangements. Taxing authority was given over to the military governors, who increasingly ruled independently of the court.
Until 750, the system appeared to be working. Tang China faced a series of ups and downs in terms of security along their frontiers, but none of the problems they encountered was very serious. Trade through the Tang possessions in Central Asia continued fairly smoothly, and the nomadic peoples on all fronts were, if not fully pacifi ed, at least not of serious concern. But the year 751 saw three major military disasters for the Tang. The first occurred at the Talas River on the western frontier, where a major Chinese force under the veteran Korean general Gao Xianzhi was decisively defeated by a combined Arab-Turkish force. Another Chinese army, on the northeastern frontier, led by the Turkish-Soghdian general An Lushan, was decisively defeated by a predominantly Khitan nomadic force. Then, a major Chinese army was defeated and wiped out in an invasion of the Nanchao kingdom in the southwest, leaving the Sichuan area of China vulnerable to renewed Tibetan attacks. The combination of defeats seriously destabilized the dynasty.
Transformation and Decline The Tang dynasty faced two big problems in trying to rebuild its military forces after the disasters of the mid-700s. First, although the large frontier armies did not fare well in combat against foreign forces, internally, their commanders continued to accrue tremendous independent power. The threat to central authority posed by military commanders and the great warrior aristocracy became acute in the 800s as commanders gained control of the civil government in their provinces and won the right to hereditary succession to their commands. In the end, independent warlords brought down the dynasty-a development that would significantly influence the military policy of the succeeding Song dynasty.
Second, the increasing demographic and economic influence of southern China in the empire as a whole had significant ramifications for the social and military structure. The south was even more unsuitable terrain for raising horses and maintaining cavalry traditions than the north of China. As a result, Chinese reliance on nomadic tribes for cavalry became even greater at the same time as the rulers of China became even more distanced from the culturally syncretic milieu that had produced the leaders of the early Tang. Thus, Chinese control over their nomadic allies waned, and cavalry warfare became more and more divergent from native Chinese military traditions. This, too, would fuel the Song reaction against great warrior aristocratic families, who most strongly embraced those traditions.
Events reached crisis proportions because of the independent power of military commanders. An Lushan, the most powerful Tang general and a court favorite, rebelled in 755. After seven years of chaotic fighting, the various rebel forces were finally defeated, but only with significant aid from nomadic Uighur horsemen, who became a problem in turn. A succession of emperors rebuilt a central army around the core of a loyal frontier army; this Shence Army was led by eunuchs, reflecting an effort to solve the problem of commander loyalty. Though temporarily successful-the Shence Army was instrumental in putting down another rebellion by military governors in 781-the institution had little success controlling the nomadic frontier because of its central location in the capital. Further, its power was steadily diluted by aristocratic infl uence, money shortages caused by the independence of the military governors, and involvement in court politics. Increasingly enfeebled, the Tang dynasty finally fell in 907, ushering in several decades of warfare that would accelerate the underlying changes in China’s political, social, and military structure.