During the reign of Emperor Wu, he sent out Zhang Qian as his envoy to distant lands in the west, he brought back important information in regards to the Kushans, the Sogdians, and the Bactrians, as well as Parthia. Though the Xiongnu still operated fiercely in the area during his travels (100BC- contemporaneous to the Civil Wars of the Roman Republic,) his journey would pave the ways for formal relations to be established between China and the various polities along the vast trade network, eventually leading to the creation of the Silk Road.

Eastern Han Heavy Cavalry

Western Han Ge Cavalry

Western Han Armor-Spear Cavalry


The anarchy that followed the fall of the Ch’in was complete. The various provinces fell to the army commanders, as a “free-for-all” threw the unified Empire back into chaos.

Liu Pang, an adventurer of sorts, while serving as a police official in Kiangsu province, carved out a personal kingdom in a rather novel way. Finding himself as the escort for a body of condemned prisoners, he decided to remove their chains and form a regiment of brigands. Naturally, they were delighted at the prospect, and eagerly followed their new-found ” condottiere ” captain, Liu Pang. Liu Pang then anointed the drums with his blood, and adopted blood red as the color for his standards. At the head of his “brigand band” he proceeded to carve out a kingdom in Kiangsu. In 207 B. C., he marched on Shensi and took it by popularity, not force-a kind of “Anschluss”. For five years, Liu Pang fought his rival, Hsiang Yu, and finally defeated him in 202 B. C. This commoner’s son, the leader of an army of convicts, was now the unchallenged Emperor of China. This Empire , the Han (named after the Han River and Liu Pang’s Imperial name, Han Kao-tzu) was to last until 220 A. D., and leave such a mark on China and her history that even today the Chinese refer to themselves as The Sons of Han.


The Han were masters at administration and this is reflected in their army organizations. Michael Loewe’s work on the Chu-yen bamboo strips has brought to light much detail on the Han chain of command and unit organization.

Field army commanders, the Shang Chin or Ta Chun, were at the head of the army organization, responsible only to the Emperor . They might also command the military regions or provinces

At the head of a particular army was the commanding officer, the Chiang Chin, or general. The army was then brigaded into physical areas and commanded by generals of lower rank. The front or vanguard, commanded by the Ch’ien Chun, was supported by the left wing, commanded by the Tso Chin, and the right wing, commanded by the Yu Chin. The rear was brought up by the Hou Chun. These were aided in administrative duties by the Lieh Chun , or general staff . Colonels (Hsiao wei) were not included in a normal chain of command as we know today, but rather seem to have been administrative officials and not necessarily military commanders.

According to the Chu-yen strips, three Tu-wei-fus or battalions, were allocated to a Chun, or army.

The Tu-wei-fu was the basic unit in the Han organization. This unit was composed of local troops assisted by a Ch’eng and a Ssu-ma. This Tu-wei-fu would consist of any number of Hou-kuan , or (provincial units), local cavalry , but mainly of conscripted infantry . It was commanded by a Tu-w companies, each of which was commanded by a Hou. In turn, each Hou-kuan was composed of from four to six platoons, or Hou. Each platoon was commanded by a Hou-chang, and consisted of six to seven squads or Sui. These squads were commanded by a Sui-chang, and usually consisted of up to eleven men.

Within the army, the best fighter of every Sui was transferred to a special unit, the shock or elite troops. This theoretically would be ten percent, or one in ten. Mainly held as a reserve, in Han times they were called the “Gallants from the Three Rivers.”

Cavalry were detached directly from army headquarters to Tu-wei-fu, Hou-kuan, or Hou headquarters.

They may have followed standard army organization, but this is not known for sure. A document unit of unknown type had 182 men. The Han made much use of allied auxiliary cavalry units-the majority of which were usually border tribes of the Hsiung-nu.

Prisoners and convicts were frequently used in the army, in two capacities. The common labor troops were convicts merely serving out a prison sentence. They performed the menial tasks around the camps, dug ditches and latrines, built fortifications and the like, and much to their chagrin, served as “cannon fodder” in battle. However the Ch’ih-hsing were amnestied convicts, serving out their sentence in the combat arm of the army. These frequently were very fierce fighters, not hampered with too much military training

Pioneers were not engineers or the like, as we might call them today. They were the static garrisons that manned the Chinese limes and the Great Wall. These troops were mainly armed farmers and actually cultivated the areas around their posts when not on duty, much like their 4th and 5th century Roman counterparts.

In addition to the above, there were several specialized units in the Han Army, brought to light by Chao Chung-huo’s campaign against the rebellious Western Ch’iang in 61 B. C.. It is here that we first hear of the “Volunteer Expert Marksmen”, who distinguished themselves by their uncanny marksmanship. These operated as a Jager or Rifle Brigade-type in battle, but as to whether they were armed with a bow or crossbow the histories do not tell us. The “Winged Forest Orphans” were an elite body of armored infantry, all of whom were orphaned as a direct result of their fathers’ dying in battle. The “Liang Chia-tzu” were elite noble-born cavalrymen, and more than likely armored. Finally, the “Yung-kan” archers are mentioned but not elaborated upon.

The Han were noted for their use of artillery and long-ranged crossbows. These weapons clearly gave them an advantage as they generally outranged any weapons their enemies possessed.

Han Dynasty likely phased out stone-throwers because their main adversary was nomadic Xiongnu. Heavy siege equipment will slow down the army, making them vulnerable to ambush and raids, there isn’t many trees lying in the desert and grasslands to build one on the spot, Xiongnu being nomadic meaning very few permanent settlements for them to lay siege, and in the rare instance when the Han army DID lay siege on Xiongnu, they burned everything down and took the fortified city in two days with overwhelming numbers, without resorting to siege engine.

Towards the end of Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms period), the Chinese were warring among themselves again, and siege warfare become necessary once more. Thus the resurgence of stone-thrower and other siege engine.


As is evident in the battle narratives of the Han period, not much in the way of stratagems and innovations were ignored by Han generals. They learned much from Sun-tzu and applied his principles.

Basically, much attention was focused on the missile weapon as the main arm, and the crossbow simply outclassed any opponent’s weapon. On repeated occasions (Battle of Sogdiana, 38 B. C., Li Ling, 90 B. C., for examples) the crossbows were formed up in ranks protected by the armored infantry who carried large shields and long spears. Even the armored cavalry at times were equipped with these crossbows, forming a kind of “self-propelled artillery.”

The chariots were used for the final blow, after the bows had done the real work. Cavalry was used for the shock assault if the ground wasn’t suitable for the chariots. Generally, the cavalry arm was used in two ways–one, as a reconnaissance and pursuit force, and two, if a highly mobile force such as the Hsiung-nu were involved as an enemy in battle, the Han cavalry attempted to pin the enemy cavalry, allowing the infantry and chariots to close.


In this category, the Han Army was far superior to any previous Chinese Army and most of her enemies.

During the early Han, all males between the ages of 23 and 56 were conscripted for two years active service. During the years 155-74 B. C. the age was reduced to 20 for conscription. At the age of 56, all low-ranking infantry and marines were classed as ” elderly and decrepit ” and were “made civilians.”

Training was not left in boot camp either. Every year, on the eighth month, the entire army, no ranks or arms excepted, was involved in a General Inspection and testing program. All units were graded on performance, and woe to the unit commander whose unit was not up to par! Thus, training and combat proficiency were a constant and ongoing operation during the Han period.

Approximate Composition of the Han Dynasty Army

Maximum percentages of types within the total force employed:

Armored cavalry = 50%

Unarmored or lightly armored cavalry = 50%

Tribal auxiliary unarmored cavalry = 50%

Labor troops =10%

Convict Combat troops =10%

Armored infantry = 50%

Unarmored infantry = 50%

Of the last two categories, 30 % could be armed with the crossbow.

Artillerists =10%

Charioteers = 5 % scout, 5% war chariots


By this time, Pan Ch’ao seemed to demonstrate that he was invincible Ansi (the Arsacid Parthian Empire) was defeated. Now Han China stood, the greatest land-owning empire possibly only second to Rome.

Pan Ch’ao ordered his second in command, Kan Ying, to set forth across newly conquered Ansi, to “Ta-ts’in” the Chinese name for the Roman Empire.

As Pan Ch’ao only allocated a portion of the army to subdue this “additional Kingdom”. it is obvious that to call this a “planned invasion” is stretching things a bit.

Kan Ying advanced across the middle-eastern expanses towards Antioch thought to be the capitol of the Roman Empire. Kan Ying was anxious to know of his enemy, so the Parthians began to tell him of the might and expanse of the Roman Empire. Upon gaining this new intelligence information, Kan Ying decided that his force was not sufficient for the task, so he turned around and rejoined Pan Ch’ao.

In 116 A. D., Trajan’s advances into Parthia to Ctesiphon would be within one day’s march of Han Chinese border garrisons. As a side note, 97 A. D. was the first year of the Emperor Trajan’s reign. It is quite interesting to speculate on the consequences had Kan Ying pursued his objective and attacked Roman Antioch.

Hypothetical military contact

The historian Homer H. Dubs speculated in 1941 that Roman prisoners of war who were transferred to the eastern border of the Parthian empire might later have clashed with Han troops there.

After a Roman army under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus decisively lost the battle of Carrhae in 54 BC, an estimated 10,000 Roman prisoners were dispatched by the Parthians to Margiana to man the frontier. Some time later the nomadic Xiongnu chief Zhizhi established a state further east in the Talas valley, near modern-day Taraz. Dubs points to a Chinese account by Ban Gu of about “a hundred men” under the command of Zhizhi who fought in a so-called “fish-scale formation” to defend Zhizhi’s wooden-palisade fortress against Han forces, in the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC. He claimed that this might have been the Roman testudo formation and that these men, who were captured by the Chinese, founded the village of Liqian (Li-chien, possibly from “legio”) in Yongchang County.

There have been attempts to promote the Sino-Roman connection for tourism, but Dubs’ synthesis of Roman and Chinese sources has not found acceptance among historians, on the grounds that it is highly speculative and reaches too many conclusions without sufficient hard evidence. DNA testing in 2005 confirmed the Indo-European ancestry of a few inhabitants of modern Liqian; this could be explained by transethnic marriages with Indo-European people known to have lived in Gansu in ancient times, such as the Yuezhi and Wusun. A much more comprehensive DNA analysis of more than two hundred male residents of the village in 2007 showed close genetic relation to the Han Chinese populace and great deviation from the Western Eurasian gene pool. The researchers conclude that the people of Liqian are probably of Han Chinese origin. The area lacks archaeological evidence of a Roman presence


  1. “In 116 A. D., Trajan’s advances into Parthia to Ctesiphon would be within one day’s march of Han Chinese border garrisons.” This isn’t correct.


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