Imperial China: War and the Military I

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Imperial China War and the Military I

There was a persistent military, cultural, and political conflict between various nomadic and semi-nomadic groups living in the steppe, and the sedentary, agricultural Chinese for most of imperial Chinese history. Steppe people were dependent upon their horses, which they used to drive their herds from pasture to pasture as the seasons progressed. The steppe grasslands did not support a high population density, but the groups who lived there had such a facility with horses that it amplified their military potential tremendously. It was also difficult for large infantry armies to campaign in the steppe because they were neither fast enough to overtake steppe cavalry armies and their mobile families, nor were they able to carry sufficient provisions for such long expeditions. Steppe living was more precarious, however, and bad weather or being driven from a critical pasturage could impel a mobile group to seek food or resources from the sedentary Chinese population, whose agricultural system produced food surpluses that could be stored. Even in good times, most manufactured goods and luxury items were only available from China.

Chinese farming populations were also much denser and fixed in place. It was easier for imperial authorities to maintain political authority over its farmers, and to extract taxes, than for steppe leaders. Where farmers would starve if they left their crops, the mobile people of the steppe could ride away from men seeking to control them or obtain resources.

War was the primary method of creating, maintaining, and destroying dynasties, but historians and political leaders seeking to claim divine sanction and moral legitimacy for a ruling house downplayed this obvious fact. Chinese leaders were able to make war serve their political purposes and establish dynasties with authority over the Chinese ecumene a half-dozen times. Even before the imperial age, war was fought on an immense scale. Dynasties consistently maintained complex and sophisticated military machines, and waged war across the whole of China. Necessity produced several significant inventions during the imperial period, including the stirrup, gunpowder, and guns. For much of its history, China had one of the most technologically, strategically, and operationally advanced military cultures in the world.

The political use of force fell on the law side of the morality-versus-law spectrum of ideal rule. Moral rulers were allowed, and even encouraged, to “punish” those resisting their correct rule, but theoretically a sage ruler would not face this choice. Unfortunately, whatever the idealized Ruist perspective suggested, China was first unified by a government, the Qin, that emphasized rule by law. Not surprisingly, they brought China together through war, rather than moral suasion. Because the Qin dynasty was short-lived and the account of its rise and fall was written in the long-lasting Han dynasty that followed, it has always been easy to criticize Qin rulership as overly dependent upon law. That explanation of why the Qin fell so quickly became an accepted part of Chinese political thought. Reliance upon strict laws was not only morally reprehensible, it was the road to destruction as well.

A strong and usually dominant strand of Chinese political ideology assumed that the naked use of force, either in establishing or maintaining a dynasty, was only useful for brief periods and that real, stable rule required non-violent governance. In the Han dynasty, Lu Sheng asked the first emperor, “Your Majesty obtained the empire on horseback, can you rule it from horseback?” Chingghis Khan received a similar comment almost a millennium and a half later: “I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback.” Civil officials did not contest the need for war to establish a dynasty, but they were insistent that an empire could only be run effectively and sustainably by civilian government. 

Dynasties were always born of war. Their founders had to be good generals, or at least employ good generals, to overthrow the old order and establish a new one. Consequently, generals were both a necessity and a threat to any political order. Those who were loyal and effective were a precious commodity. Far more than civil officials, the creation and maintenance of a dynasty was dependent upon managing generals. Mismanagement could either foment rebellion or preclude an effective response to rebellions and invasions.

War also determined the borders of a dynasty or Chinese state. There were, however, relatively few demarcated external borders for Chinese empires (as discussed in the previous chapter). Not only did Chinese empires not want to acknowledge that there were in fact specific territorial limits to their power, they also lacked the ability to delineate and patrol exact borders. Power tapered off quickly beyond the reach of an imperial army, something that could be as true of lands within the empire as those outside it. Dynastic authority, the ability to obtain resources and carry out the imperial will, was the product of direct military force or the reasonable threat of that force being used. Its absence did not necessarily immediately result in invasion or rebellion, of course, but the presence of a responsive force could dramatically alter the results in either case.

The army was also responsible for maintaining civil order. Soldiers policed the empire to apprehend criminals as well as rebels. Local magistrates were usually civil officials tasked with administering laws, civil and criminal, but in the main it would be soldiers who carried out their orders and enforced government authority. Front-line expeditionary troops did not usually serve as local military forces and vice versa. It was very difficult to maintain soldiers and officers effective in these widely disparate tasks since, for example, a capable expeditionary commander and his army would likely be generally ineffective at criminal policing. Extended periods of peace might improve the capability of an army’s policing skills, and promote officers good at maintaining civil order, but undermine its battlefield effectiveness. As a result of these dual functions, states constantly struggled to balance the divergent demands on its personnel.

Military Technology, Society, and Politics

By the beginning of the imperial period, chariots driven by aristocrats had given way to cavalry—though still without stirrups—and mass infantry armies drawn mostly from the farming population across the empire. Shock cavalry, horsemen who relied upon using the force of their mount to drive home an attack, developed in the third century, and then disappeared after the introduction of the stirrup in the fourth, a shift which remains unexplained. Mounted archery, on the other hand, was a near constant in imperial China until very late in the nineteenth century. Armies were dominated by infantry, equipped with bows, crossbows, spears, and swords. Although there were some significant shifts in weaponry over time, the distinctions in modes of warfare remained stable: mounted archers, usually steppe, and infantry, usually Chinese.

Naval warfare was equally important for commanders seeking to conquer all of the Chinese ecumene. Any attempt to create an empire like that of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, or Qing required crossing major rivers—the Yellow, Huai, and Yangzi, as well as many others. Crossing those rivers, and campaigning in south China as well, required a navy that could maintain riverine control long enough to transport land forces and to keep them supplied. Cao Cao, who nominally sought to preserve the Han dynasty in the early third century, was unable to move south to consolidate power after his famous defeat at the naval battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208–9. His initial successes had supplied him with a navy, but his commanders and soldiers were not sailors. They were defeated on the river, and then fell back to an anchorage where they chained their ships together. An attack by fire ships destroyed Cao Cao’s closely packed fleet and killed many of his troops. Though he would retain power in the north, his naval defeat left China divided into three kingdoms—in the north, south, and Sichuan. Just as it had frustrated Cao Cao, the Yellow River frequently marked the farthest southern border for raiding or invading northern steppe armies because they lacked naval expertise and resources.

Another distinct and important aspect of Chinese imperial warfare was the centrality of siege engineering. Just as no army could conquer all of China without naval capability, no army could conquer much at all without the ability to capture fortified cities and, in turn, the ability to build and defend fortifications. All significant urban centers were surrounded by thick walls built with pounded earth, and some also had moats. In later times the walls were often faced with brick as well, partly to strengthen them, and partly to prevent erosion. Pounded earth walls are relatively thick for a given height, at least compared with medieval European fortification curtain walls, which were comparatively thin, high, and brittle. In Europe, fortification walls only began to resemble those in China after the introduction of the cannon. Some scholars have suggested that the nature of Chinese walls retarded the development of the cannon because the weapon did not prove nearly as effective against them. Although plausible, this was not the reason the development of the cannon slowed after the thirteenth century (a subject we shall return to later in this chapter). It is worth noting, however, that Nanjing’s fourteenth-century city walls were a significant obstacle even for the Japanese army in 1937.

The most famous Chinese fortification is what, in modern times, has been called “The Great Wall.” Some form of long walls and other fortifications marked the northern edge of Qin dynasty territory, but the current structure dates from the middle of the Ming dynasty (and the parts most frequently visited by tourists today are substantially late-twentieth-century reconstructions). Like many aspects of imperial China, it was more important in historiography than in history. Even for the Ming, who developed it more extensively than any other dynasty, though initially in a piecemeal fashion by local commanders, the wall was a temporary expedient that evolved into a partly effective defense against low-level threats, like small Mongol raiding parties. It was never a continuous and consistent tool of Chinese strategy for the simple reason that it couldn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to defend the northern border against steppe invasion. The various long walls built at various times on the northern border, and even the Ming dynasty wall, did not mark the northern edge of the Chinese border. Functionally, northern border fortifications were at best tactical expedients, rather than strategic tools.

The shift during the Han dynasty from focusing on consolidating rule across north China to defending the northern border against steppe incursions reflected the pattern that would persist for most of imperial Chinese history. When large steppe polities consolidated under an effective leadership, like the Mongols under Chingghis Khan, they could launch large-scale invasions of sedentary Chinese states, even overthrowing and replacing them. This was relatively rare, however, and smaller steppe polities were caught between fighting other steppe polities, trading with China, working as cavalrymen for China, or raiding China for resources. When they did invade, their highly mobile armies of horse-archers made them hard to contain, but they had great difficulty capturing well-prepared, fortified positions.

Cavalry armies were very good at attacking, but tended to withdraw when faced with superior force or the need to capture a fortified position. The only time the northern border was not a chronic military issue was when the steppe itself was politically divided, or a steppe group ruled China. Although often defeated by Chinese forces, they were always a concern.

Non-Chinese groups in the south who were outside China gradually found themselves engulfed by Chinese empires. These groups in what was, or was becoming, southern China were less organized and less mobile than northern cavalrymen. Southern indigenous populations occasionally resisted the Chinese state as it advanced into their territory, but rarely with much success. Chinese farmers migrating south gradually displaced native groups from the most productive farmland, and relentlessly ground them down through economic and demographic superiority. Unlike the northern steppe peoples, the non-Chinese in the south never presented an existential threat to the Chinese state. The greatest difficulty for Chinese armies campaigning in the far south was tropical and jungle diseases, which caused far more casualties than any battle.


Imperial Chinese armies were extremely large in comparison to those of most pre-modern societies. Even before the imperial era, Chinese field armies had grown into the tens of thousands, necessitating the employment of skilled generals, sound logistics, and highly organized bureaucracies. Early imperial armies were usually hybrids incorporating professional soldiers alongside militia. The latter provided the bulk of armies, and the former a stiffening of cadres and the actual striking edge in battle. The Chinese ideal was the farmer-soldier, a man who labored on his farm until becoming a soldier when needed in war. Once the war was over the soldier returned to his farm, thus avoiding the need for an expensive, politically dangerous standing army. Even steppe forces, whether working for a Chinese dynasty or in the steppe itself, usually drawn from the male population of various steppe groups, were effectively militia, albeit with highly developed skills in riding and shooting. This shifted in the middle of the Tang dynasty, with the imperial army changing to a force made up of professionals, and militia confined to local defense. Their successors, the Song, also maintained a professional army, though a nostalgia for the farmer-soldiers of classical antiquity, and even the early Tang, continued to haunt government policymakers. Repeated efforts to revive the farmer-soldier ideal were always taken seriously, despite the fact they failed to produce effective troops every time. Song statesmen feared the threat to the throne posed by a professional army, recalling the An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) that had briefly driven the Tang court from its capital and nearly destroyed the dynasty. They also lamented the cost of such an army. A farmer-soldier army, on the other hand, offered the chimera of a large, inexpensive, and loyal force able to defeat the Liao and Xixia.

Foreign rulers of China tended to keep their Chinese subjects out of military affairs, relying upon their ethnic compatriots to form primarily cavalry armies. However, a continual friction between steppe occupiers and the sedentary occupied made policing difficult for non-Chinese rulers; there was simply too much territory and too many people to suppress resistance for very long. The solution was to enlist local elites and give them a stake in the ruling dynasty’s power but, as always, the difficulty was in retaining the loyalty of those empowered elites.

The Mongol rulers of China formed armies by drafting specific groups with particular capabilities: Mongols and other steppe groups supplied most of the cavalry striking forces; Muslim siege engineers working for the Mongols in the thirteenth century brought counterweight trebuchet—a swape beam with a weight on its short arm—to China; Chinese sailors working for the Mongols manned the riverine naval forces that attacked the Southern Song dynasty, and then, along with Korean sailors, tried to invade Japan; Chinese infantry fought within China, and other local forces were brought in as the Mongols rode across Eurasia. Unlike the Song army, the Mongol military did not systematically recruit men and then train them as soldiers. Unfortunately for the progress of military technology in China, they did not support the same kind of military bureaucracy that the Song had either, and the end of that bureaucracy sharply curtailed the advancement of gun technology.

After the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the Ming initially tried a new military system, permanently enrolling soldiers and officers as military families and assigning agricultural lands to them to provide for their upkeep. In theory, this would maintain a large and functional army at little or no cost to the central government’s coffers; families would provide sons to the army as needed in return for their land. In practice, however, the soldiers quickly became more focused on farming, and military readiness declined sharply. So much so that, in the sixteenth century, military units composed of hereditary soldiers were completely ineffective in fighting the Wokou pirates, forcing generals to raise and train new units outside the system. Hereditary officers were no better. This would have been bad enough if the economy and the threats to the dynasty had remained static, but with changes in agriculture, society, and culture, as well as new threats forming in the steppe, the military declined in effectiveness just when a strong army was critically important. The military decline was not universal, however, and some armies and generals were episodically functional, effectively dealing with many significant threats. New Western weapons began to be adopted by the Ming in the early seventeenth century, but they were not enough to stave off growing Manchu power in the steppe.

It was the Qing dynasty that truly confronted the West and modern weaponry. In 1644 the Manchus invaded China, the Great Wall proving an ineffective defense against large forces, and replaced the Ming dynasty. Beijing, the Ming capital, had already fallen to a bandit army before the Manchus arrived, but the imperial family and the ruling class of the Qing dynasty would all be Manchus. Some of the best Ming armies joined the Manchus against the bandits, and then continued to serve the Manchus once it was clear that the Ming dynasty was finished.

After Britain badly defeated Qing forces during the Opium War (1839–42), and the Qing military failed to stop the Taiping rebels at the beginning of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), halting steps were taken to adopt Western arms and organization. At the very end of the imperial era, some new Qing forces were organized and armed according to Western practice, and some naval forces were likewise emulating their Western counterparts. However, the modernizing military was unable to handle mounting domestic and foreign pressures, and the Qing fell in the wake of a failed mutiny.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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